Paving the way for advanced printing technologies

In the last few years, 3-Dimensional printing has become an incredibly hot topic. On the cutting edge of this exciting technology is the University of Northern Iowa, which is now home to the largest 3-D printer in North America.

3D Printer
A look at the inside of UNI's 3-D printer.

The 3-D printer, which is housed on the third floor of the Cedar Valley TechWorks facility in Waterloo, has the capability to produce a solid part with a volume of more than 13 cubic feet. For those of you wondering, that is about the size of a large chest freezer.

The printer was purchased largely through funds provided by the Iowa Department of Economic Development. The printing center is a new part of UNI's Metal Casting Center, headed by Jerry Thiel. "The printer sets the university apart from other universities in the level of support we can provide the industry," said Thiel.

The printer takes blueprint 3-D files of objects created on computers and prints real-life models of the objects. A robotic arm spreads a layer of sand less than three grains deep and the pattern of the object is sprayed down. This process is then repeated over and over to create the mold. According to Thiel, the printer can produce up to 3,000 pounds of molds and cores of various sizes and shapes at a time.

"The students' exposure to an industrial-size printer will allow them a better understanding of the technology and its capabilities," said Thiel. "It will also allow participation of faculty in various research opportunities, such as with the Digital Manufacturing Innovation Institution in Illinois."

Although the printer will benefit UNI, it directly impacts Iowa and the country as well. 3-D printers can assist the manufacturing industry to recapture a competitive position, grow the industry and create well-paying jobs. "The printer gives the university the ability to assist the manufacturing industry at levels not possible without it," said Thiel.

In the first eight weeks of its operation, the printer assisted John Deere with a new tractor design and helped nine other companies with mold prototypes. According to Thiel, the center also has plans to install a smaller, laboratory-scale 3-D printer to be used for research.

So far, 3-D printers have been used to make everything from body parts for implants to full-size automobiles. UNI now has access to each of these possibilities and is taking advantage of the opportunity to educate a new generation of students.