If a tiny leg breaks off a keyboard at Caesar Rodney High School, no one orders a new one. Students make a replacement on their 3-D printer.
While most adults have never seen a 3-D printer, Delaware high school students use them every day to make everything from auto parts to exact replicas of human bones.
Armed with plans from the Internet, students at Charter School of Wilmington printed a bantam version of the Great Pyramid of Giza, complete with burial chambers
Damon Collins Jr., a Delcastle Technical High School junior, designed his own car part. When auto tech teacher John Fitzgerald needed a replacement part for a motor, he gave the part to Collins, who did the math to make an exact copy on his computer. He printed a plastic prototype in Marty Baeriswyl’s engineering tech class. It fit. The auto tec teacher used the junior’s specs to cut a sheet metal flange that’s now under the hood of a car that’s driving around New Castle County.
The 3-D printers turn a spaghetti-like spool of plastic into almost anything, one very thin layer at a time. As prices drop to $1,000 to $2,000, they are popping up at schools up and down Delaware.
From the outside, they look like somebody crossed an ordinary computer printer and a plastic stereo turntable. The interior glows with the light of a 500-degree printer head that zips back and forth molding the plastic.
Bre Pettis, co-founder of MakerBot, one of the most popular printer brands, recalls having one Apple II computer in each classroom when he was growing up. He wants kids to gather around the MakerBot just as he played on the Apple II every chance he got. He hopes today’s students will expand the uses for MakerBots, which have already been employed to make an exact model of a 14-month-old toddler’s heart so surgeons could plan his life-saving surgery.
The printers got their start in Delaware schools eight years ago when Baeriswyl went to a national student competition and glimpsed a $24,000 Stratus Dimension model.
“I thought, oh my God, this is the future,” Baeriswyl said.
He was right.
In one AutoCAD workstation in Baeriswyl’s class, junior Juan Zamudio was perfecting a 3-D pressure valve for a hose. The sophomore sounded like he already had the mechanical engineering degree he wants when discussed R&D and explained exactly how the valve controls the water pressure.
Zamudio, who made a three-dimension Phillies logo for himself but gave it to a handicapped student instead, said he would eventually like to design drones that could help handicapped people perform everyday tasks.
“If I can do this in high school before I go to college, I’m ahead of the pack and there may be a lot more things that will be open to me,” he said.
With prices for 3-D printers dropping as low as under $1,000 and a roll of plastic material priced around $70, more schools and even individuals are buying.
Students at Polytech High School in Woodside print engineering parts in class. “We design things in a virtual world and then we’re able to create them as actual components,” said Bob Bogdziewicz, who teaches computer-aided drafting and design.
Chris Harris, architecture and autoCAD teacher at Caesar Rodney High School, said the school’s current $2,000 printed is three times faster than the four-year-old $5,000 one it replaced. Both were student magnets. “They want to know how it works and why it works,” said Harris, whose class designs mechanical parts and intricate pieces for building projects.
At Charter, students used the printers to create custom parts for robot competitions.
When they printed out a plastic gear from the Internet that was too fused to turn, student Jeff Horne employed his trigonometry training to design a drill bit to fit the tiny parts. He printed it in 3-D and used it to get the gears turning.
In one workstation at Delcastle, Ahyezah Richards worked on a project that stood out among the valves, flanges and drill bits made in most school labs.
The smartly dressed senior was designing an elegant spike-heeled shoe.
“I love fashion,” said Richards, who plans to study interior design at the Art Institute of Philadelphia next year. Running her mouse over the arch of the computerized shoe, she said, “The challenge is this arch and how I’m going to get that curve.”
While most projects are small scale because the printers run slowly, in a Cinderella twist, Baeriswyl told Richards she could create a full-sized shoe.
Already a budding designer, Richards kept mulling over the time and material. “I’d have to make it in like a size 8½ to fit my foot,” she said repeatedly.
The students who have had a chance to use 3-D printers at their schools echoed the sentiments of Delcastle junior Juan Zamudio.
“If I had gone to a regular high school, they would have taught me what they know, which is just the textbook,” Zamudio said. “When I saw the machine printing, I thought, ‘That’s a little ridiculous.”