Tim has been a maker for nearly his whole life. Early on, it was Lego and wooden outdoor forts, then it was machined parts and assemblies in college, and now he enjoys 3D printed metal components. He found his passion for product design his senior studying mechanical engineering at Cornell University and then went to Georgia Tech to pursue graduate studies in mechanical engineering to learn design methods for product development. There, he became involved with the first wave of rapid prototyping technology, which has been a mainstay of his work ever since. His teaching and product design research continued to evolve and expand once he joined the faculty at Penn State. He enjoys his split (50/50) appointment between Mechanical Engineering (for his design activities) and Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering (for his making activities), and he’s also an active member of Penn State’s Engineering Design Program. From 2007-2012 he served as the Director of the Learning Factory, which he grew into the largest, college-wide capstone design program in the country. Today, more than 900 engineering students annually engage in hands-on design/build projects with over 120 different industry sponsors, ranging from large multi-national corporations to individual entrepreneurs and student start-ups. Today, his research focuses on additive manufacturing with metallic materials with applications in aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, medical, and space industries.
We 3D printed two large-scale piston crowns with a steel alloy that is currently being tested in a heavy duty combustion application. The laser-based powder bed fusion technology that we used to fabricate the pistons allowed us to create an intricate internal piston geometry and external contours that would be difficult and expensive to machine, but with 3D printing, it was a piece of cake.
Right now, our “go-to” Maker tool is our EOS M 280 laser-based powder bed fusion system in Penn State’s Center for Innovative Materials Processing through Direct Digital Deposition (CIMP-3D, www.cimp-3d.org), which I co-direct. This system is in high demand by many of our industry partners as it provides engineers with unparalleled design freedom to create complex geometries and internal passageways, lightweight components, and integrate multi-part assemblies into a single 3D printed component. This process allows engineers’ creativity and design skills to flourish like never before.
For 3D metal printing, support structure design is the biggest challenge right now. Support structures play two crucial roles in additive manufacturing with metals. First, they provide support for part features that are not self-supporting (e.g., overhangs), and second, they help anchor the part to the build plate so that the part does not “curl up” during the build. This last role is particularly important as “curling” causes more than half of the build failures right now due to the high temperature fluctuations that parts experience as they are heated (and then cool) by the laser during the build. To overcome this, we have to design smarter and really understand the implications of build orientation and process parameters of each system. Also, it helps to have a very experienced designer on your staff as much of this is still best gained through experience; the design tools to predict and compensate for this do not yet exist.
To me, ‘Maker Culture’ is all about hands-on experimentation – designing, building, testing, learning, and repeating – to gain insight into the problem at hand. It’s done in a safe, low risk environment, where everyone supports each other and failure is an acceptable option, provided it advances one’s understanding of the problem or solution. Inherent to this definition is the notion of play, that making is fun – and useful – for learning.
Student and faculty interest – and passion – for making is unifying many of the organizational silos across our campus. Tools for making (designing and building) are providing a common reference point and language for otherwise disparate groups and disciplines to connect and interact. Students and faculty in engineering and materials science are talking to those in architecture who, in turn, share their experiences with those in visual arts and sculpture who then adopt the technology for their use. They reciprocate by sharing their ideas, which lead to new ways of thinking in engineering. Meanwhile, the tools and technology are finding use in fields ranging from anthropology and psychology to mathematics and humanitarian/social entrepreneurship. Business and supply chain students and faculty are getting engaged to understand the economic implications of ‘making’ technology while computer and information scientists are investigating the underlying digital thread – and data security implications – that pervades ‘making’, leading to new areas of inquiry in human-computer interaction. ‘Making’ thus becomes a common bond through which these disciplines interact, share insights, and make new discoveries together that further advances the field.
Making provides the mind-set and experience needed to attack big problems. It provides a bridge, particularly for engineering students, to engage the real-world through hands-on design/build experiences. Finding solutions for these big problems requires constant iteration and experimentation, and working in a making culture rounds out the theoretical and analytical skills that are emphasized so heavily in engineering classrooms. At Penn State, making helps transition learning out of the classroom and into the real-world where things are never as simple as they are in a textbook. Making also provides a conduit to engage other disciplines to help solve big problems. Rarely can big problems be solved by a single person or a single discipline; they require teaming and multidisciplinary expertise, which is inherently found (and reinforced and encouraged) in a making culture.
Access and availability are the two biggest challenges facing Making in higher education. Students arriving at universities today do not want to wait until their senior year to be able to use and access a 3D printer or making technology. In most higher education settings, ‘making’ technology is directly associated with (and paid for by) a class or a research project, and so, students cannot access or use it outside of that. Moreover, making technology is often in a lab or building supervised by a staff member, which goes home at 5pm. This limits availability of the technology to day time use, which is when students have class and often cannot meet to use it. Safety is always of utmost concern as well, but this not as much of an issue with many making technologies (e.g., 3D printers) versus more traditional making equipment (e.g., mill, lathe). In fact, many students now have and operate 3D printers in their dorm rooms because they are relatively inexpensive and difficult to access. As these costs continue to decrease, this will become more and more common.
At the heart of it, making puts the fun back in engineering, and when students are having fun, they often don’t realize that they are learning at the same time. So, in a making environment, you can teach them a wide range of professional and technical skills that will prepare them to be successful when they enter the workforce. Hands-on skills and experimentation developed through making are important for learning how things work in the real-world, and teaming and communication skills are inherent in the collaborative nature of making cultures. Leadership and entrepreneurial skills can also be honed and grown in such environments as students see opportunities that others do not. Interactions with students in other disciplines engenders an appreciation for what each discipline brings to the table, which improves your “people skills”, in general, and your ability to work in teams, in particular. Maintaining a safe (and clean) making environment also forces people to be organized and methodic in their approach to work, and failures in a making environment build character while leading to new discoveries. All of this complements and reinforces the skills (and theory) taught in the classroom, and is more and more critical to students’ success in the 21st century.
Get connected and get plugged in. Find your passion and a means to contribute, and don’t be afraid to try (and suggest) new things. Makers tend to be very open and welcoming to new members, but at the same time they want to know if you are serious – and have new skills and knowledge to contribute. Even if you don’t initially, don’t be afraid to find a hole that you are passionate about and will work hard to fill it. Once you are in and are comfortable making and working in that environment, then pay it forward to the next person.