3D Printing Transforms Student Engineering and Design

3D printing is a disruptive force in manufacturing, expanding design creativity for mechanical engineers—in fact, they often come up with new designs for products that can only be made with 3D printing. This is also true for mechanical engineering students, who are using the technology to make innovative products for their capstone projects and engineering competitions.
Michael Beltran, a lecturer for the mechanical engineering department at Northwestern University, lead instructor for its engineering design capstone course, and director of the university’s 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping Lab in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, sees this firsthand.
“Mechanical engineering students frequently come down and tour the lab,” he says. “Five year ago, maybe a quarter of them would be familiar with the available 3D printing technologies.  Today, all of them know all the machines. It is not so much introducing students to this technology, but educating them on what can and cannot be done. It really expands the way they think about function and design.”
Beltran’s capstone course takes students through all the creative aspects of design, from project definition to ideation to functional prototypes. Essential to this process is defining product specifications, developing creative design ideas, and evaluating design concepts—which typically involve 3D printing. The 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping Lab allows students to make multiple physical prototypes ranging from feasibility demonstration to full alpha-level functional prototypes, which look and feel like real injection-molded parts.
“I remind students that it is important to remember that the design process is much greater than just 3D printing,” Beltran says. “I tell them they need to understand how this tool fits into the whole picture. Having a 3D printer doesn't mean you're going to create a better product—what it allows you to do is succeed, or fail, much more quickly.”
International Prototyping Success
Airplane inspectors use an optical device called a boreoscope to inspect turbine engines. This time-consuming process involves positioning the device in the engine and manually collecting data and images for further review and analysis—a process that can take anywhere from six to eight hours to complete.
Eager to speed up this process, GE Aviation challenged engineers around the world to design a more efficient inspection system. After receiving more than 150 entries, GE Aviation selected a project submitted by some of Beltran’s students. The company plans to further prototype and test this new inspection tool at its research facilities.
Students Zachary Fenske, John Harris, Jonathan Hoffman, Elizabeth McTighe, Matthew O’Hagan, Jacob Schneider-Martin, and Jay Welch designed the project while enrolled in Beltran’s capstone course. They took it upon themselves to enter the project in GE Aviation’s design challenge.
The segmented device—nicknamed “SearchEYE” by the team—is inserted into an aircraft engine’s combustion chamber and navigates the chamber’s interior geometry, collecting visual inspection data for aircraft technicians. This streamlines the turbine inspection process, shortens inspection time, and removes the element of human error.
“Nobody had developed a device like this before,” Beltran says. “Because it is a controlled process, they can control how the camera inspects each surface, allowing GE to much more easily stitch together images—a huge improvement over having it done by hand.”
3D printing was used to create some key components with unique geometries. For confidentiality reasons, details of the design cannot be shared at this time—the device does, however, “use not-obscure technologies in obscure ways,” says co-inventor Jonathan Hoffman.
Imagination and Creativity Abound
SearchEYE is one example of engineering students at Northwestern using 3D printing to make one-of-a-kind prototypes. Other innovative capstone projects include:
  • An intrauterine device that assists physicians during childbirth by measuring and recording dilation in real time, providing an electronic historical record. 3D printing was used to prototype the device and create molds for silicone casts.
  • A pipette that measures powders instead of liquids. The student team had to overcome static electricity issues to create the device, which can measure, weigh, and dispense powdered materials. Several innovative 3D-printed parts were required for the prototype.  
The 3D Printing and Rapid Prototyping Lab allows students to experience rapid development and parallel modeling and testing. “3D printing gives students a prototype to hold in a matter of days, allowing them to see what works and what does not,” says Beltran. “They can see what they need to do, and iterate on it quickly. This saves everyone time, money, and sanity, and lets them learn at the same time.”   
Mark Crawford is an independent writer.
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