Another dimension

Makerspace hosts 3-D printing class

Examples of what can be made via 3-D printing. (Journal photos by Christie Bleck)

By CHRISTIE BLECK

Journal Staff Writer

MARQUETTE — A recent introductory 3-D printing class for the community at MAPS Makerspace had many dimensions, but mostly up.

And the participants could even take home lovely parting gifts, which were small 3-D items like pre-made robots and snowflakes.

The Marquette Area Public Schools’ special section at Marquette Senior High School — Makerspace — is a place for students to learn about STEAM-related subjects.

STEAM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.

You could say all these subjects are part of 3-D printing.

It could be assumed by the uninitiated that 3-D printing simply entails printing a picture of something with a multi-dimensional aspect on a piece of paper — typical day-to-day stuff. However, 3-D printing allows the user to make a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, laying down successive thin layers of a material to build it up.

Makerspace Director Becky Simmons, with the help of knowledgeable high school students, gave participants the basics during the Thursday class.

Simmons acknowledged 3-D printing can be complex, so there was no realistic way she could teach people to be a three-dimensional designer in an hour and a half.

In fact, their projects weren’t completed by the end of class, so the students had the option of picking them up or having them mailed to them.

Simmons did, however, want to teach people designs that were printable right from the start.

“That’s kind of our goal tonight — is to take away the barriers of printing and get you a design that you actually made yourself,” said Simmons, who noted that breaking into the design part of the process is the most difficult part for most people.

The world of 3-D printing, like the products it creates, is multifaceted, with students learning about related software programs like Tinkercad and Inkscape Thursday.

However, the class wasn’t all about software.

The Makerspace tech room, Simmons said, has five 3-D printers, which the students could watch during the class.

Those printers are cube-shaped and mostly transparent, so the motion could be easily viewed, although a lot of patience was required to see a project from start to finish — a process that could take many hours.

The class, though, spent most of its time in front of laptops, trying out various software activities to understand the process.

Participants first had to create sketches of their own designs using felt-tip pens and index cards, making sure the lines of their drawings were connected for proper printing.

Each sketch was to be converted file that would be printed, Simmons said.

The high school helpers took photos of the designs, which then were imported into a software program called Cura that sliced them into layers the computer understood.

“It’s how the computer and printer talk to each other,” Simmons said.

Using Cura, students could choose their dimensions, for instance, or decide whether the darker material should be higher than the lighter material.

Filaments the were chosen and set to print.

Simmons likened the printing process to using a glue gun in which glue is pushed to make it extrude from a hot tip. In the 3-D process, solid plastic is pushed through a hot tip as well, briefly melting before it comes out again, after which it cools.

The computer, she said, tells the printer to “put plastic here” for one layer, basically smearing a thin layer of plastic that’s stuck on the previous layer. Those layers keep building up.

“It’s the most expensive glue gun you’ll ever use,” Simmons said. “And it’s computer-aided, so it’s moving around, you know, without you controlling it.”

Makerspace uses Ultimaker printers, which she noted has a lot of automation.

“They’re kind of known as the Apple of 3-D printing, and so they’re pretty much out-of-the-box printing and don’t require a ton of extra fidgeting,” Simmons said.

Items can be printed in metal, but at Makerspace, users print in plastic, which Simmons noted is biodegradable, doesn’t stink and is inexpensive.

Simmons had the students explore software programs on their laptops while they were in between activities. One of those was Thingiverse.com, which allows people to create a holiday ornament out of a “rectified rhombicosidodecahedron” and even a playable soprano ukulele, for example.

Another program was YouMagine.com, which has designs for items like a car ejection seat handle and a refrigerator door latch, also known as the Fused Filament Fridge Fix.

These are websites where people have uploaded designs that others can 3-D print for free.

“A lot of people can get lost for hours in this,” Simmons said.

Again, the creations developed in Thursday’s class were on the simple side, ranging from a numerical 906 design to a single sword.

Justin Smith, of Marquette, said he took the class because it was a new experience, although he had heard of 3-D printing before.

“I got a couple friends who do it,” Smith said.

Someone with a fair amount of experience in 3-D printing was Matthew Schlenkert, a junior at Marquette Senior High School who was one of several assistants during the Thursday session.

While a freshman, he began to develop an interest in the subject of printing, which he believed used just a piece of paper.

“I never thought about printing in three dimensions,” Schlenkert said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.