Inspect the Tech: FSU’s 3D Printers

A completed 3D-printed backpack tension lock. (Photo by Brad Leuchte)

The LulzBot TAZ 5 3D printer sits behind the IT help desk and can be seen from the other side of a glass window.

Connected to it, a laptop shows a 3D image of the object Michael Darcy, a helpdesk technician at FSU, is printing.

The image is of a backpack tension lock that Darcy will use to repair a backpack. This is one of many 3D objects Darcy and his colleagues have created while experimenting with the printer.

And scattered across the office are a variety of other 3D creations.

From a T-Rex skull tape dispenser to the first part of a Toyota car engine, the 3D printer’s precision and capabilities are evident.

On the Lower Mezzanine of the Whittemore Library behind the IT help desk sit printers capable of producing far more than a common essay or study guide, and many students and staff don’t know of their existence.

Three 3D printers are placed throughout the IT department’s office ready to print the next 3D object.

The FlashForge Creator Pro, the Cube X Trio and the newest edition, the LulzBot TAZ 5, are the proper name of these printers.

Darcy, the technician in charge of the 3D printers, explained that the university bought them because they wanted to see how the campus could use the latest technology.

However, campus interest had been low, and the printers haven’t been used much until recently, Darcy said.

The Lulzbot TAZ 5, the highest-end 3D printer on campus, was ordered earlier in the summer and cost $2,200, according to Darcy.

Darcy said that it was much cheaper than the Cube X Trio they picked up a few years prior, that cost almost $5,000.

Darcy explained that most of the 3D objects they’ve created have come from the website  Thingiverse, some of which can be downloaded for free.

Judith Foley, manager of campus technology services, needed to repair a broken VHS to DVD converter that was missing a button, so she used AutoCAD, software that allows her to design her own 3D objects.

The process to create an object with the LulzBot TAZ 5 takes a few relatively simple steps.

First, a design is either downloaded off the web or created in AutoCAD.

Then Cura, the 3D software, is loaded in.

Next , the printer’s surface has to be hot enough to shape the plastic.

Then the printer takes over and begins to create the object.

“If you can’t find something on Thingiverse, you can build it yourself,” Foley said. “I exported it to a .stl file from AutoCAD and gave it to Mike, and he used the software and printed it. It’s pretty cool stuff. … It’s good you guys are highlighting this because nobody really knows we have them,” Foley said

Although campus awareness about the printers has been low, a few professors on campus have been finding uses for the printers.

Doug Leaffer, a physics and earth science professor, recently printed out a small hand-held replica of the Chandra Space Observatory for the McAuliffe Center.

The University received a drawing from  the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and converted to an .stl file.

“We printed this for the McAuliffe Center to produce a handheld model that we could show as a demonstration piece for students that come to the McAuliffe Center – middle school students – to learn about Christa McAuliffe and the space program and astronomy,” Leaffer said.

Leaffer explained that there were some limitations to what they could print on the 3D printer because of its size and resolution.

“It has to be of a resolution that is reproducible on the 3D printer that IT has and within the footprint of the printer itself, which is about as big as a toaster,” Leaffer said. “So if it was a larger object, we wouldn’t be able to print it due to resolution constraints and or size limitations.”

Leaffer suggests that students gain experience by using 3D rendering software like AutoCAD to understand how to make 3D models.

Leaffer said he would use the printer again to print out more models and a variety of other structures. However, he doesn’t necessarily believe the printers could be used campus wide because of the skill needed to use the software, as well as the limitations of  how detailed and big a model can be.

Irene Porro, director of the McAuliffe Center, said the Chandra Observatory replica was a test to see how they can use the technology.

“For an educational purpose, it’s nice for us to have a model of the actual thing because you cannot go and see this telescope anywhere because it’s up in space,” Porro said.

“For us right now, it’s still pretty much just an experiment trying to figure out what we can do, but this was a good example for us to understand what the printer we have on campus can do, but also what the students on campus can do.”

Porro also said she would use the 3D printer to replace broken parts of the Challenger Learning Center exhibit in the McAuliffe Center.

Darcy hopes that more students will find uses for the printers. “It’s all up to the community. [I hope that] people around the campus are going to come up with new and interesting ways to use it.”