Fairbanks classroom shows potential for 3-D printing

A classroom in downtown Fairbanks has the beginnings of a science-fiction story turning practical reality. There are 20 computers hooked up to 20 3-D printers in a lab at University of Alaska’s Community and Technical College or CTC. Teachers there believe it is going to be a huge game-changer for Alaska to “print” objects instead of buying them from an outside source.

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A 3-D printer creating a design (Photo by Robyne, KUAC - Fairbanks)
A 3-D printer creating a design (Photo by Robyne, KUAC – Fairbanks)

So that thing you ordered online a week ago, for which you paid a lot to ship to Alaska? You are still waiting, huh? Now imagine that you went to your household 3-D printer, downloaded a pattern for the thing you wanted, pushed a button and the item appeared. No waiting for the mail, no shipping costs.

Joel Sturm is a Program Assistant for the Drafting and Design Technology Department at CTC – the downtown branch of University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“I think that printers in general, the 3-D printers, are very in line with the Alaska duct tape mentality, or like do it yourself and fix it,” Sturm said. “And it’s also us being kind of separated from the rest of the world. Everyone knows about shipping costs or waiting longer. So the digital inventory and delocalized manufacturing, I think, is gonna be a really big part of it in Alaska.”

Sturm manages the lab where 3-D printers turn spools of plastic into practical items.

Joel Sturm, a Program Assistant for the Drafting and Design Technology Department at CTC (Photo by Robyne, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Joel Sturm, a Program Assistant for the Drafting and Design Technology Department at CTC (Photo by Robyne, KUAC – Fairbanks)

“What this looks like right now is it’s got this hot nozzle. It gets really hot and then it’s got a plastic spool feeding into it. So as it feeds in, it melts it and it squirts it out the nozzle,” Sturm said. “If you were doing a soda can, it would just be a series of ‘draw a circle. Go up a little bit. Draw a circle. Go up a little bit.’ It’s just cutting whatever you have into layers and then drawing each one individually.”

Adam McDermott is a teacher for a 3-D modeling and printing class in the lab.

“It’s pretty exciting to come into the class and the first thing I get here is the printers are going,” McDermott said. “We have a couple students who are really on it and they wanna get going, not wait. And then as the class fills up everyone starts talking and looking at stuff and oohing and ahhing. It’s pretty cutting edge.”

He believes 3-D printing will be a paradigm shift, as Alaskans get used to it. There will be a 3-D printer in everyone’s home – kind of like a toaster, or coffeemaker. And we will use them like a Star Trek replicator — to make whatever we need.

And according to Bill Fox, another teacher, the costs of the technology are coming down. The little six-inch by six-inch printers in this room are about $700 each, but kits start at $300.

Spools for the 3-D printers (Photo by Robyne, KUAC - Fairbanks)
Spools for the 3-D printers (Photo by Robyne, KUAC – Fairbanks)

“Well it’s gonna change everybody’s life because on a computer, you can design a part that you need or an object that you need and print it and have it ready to go quicker than you can have it sent off. This is a game changer for everything.”

Fox makes parts for old cars, models and toys, McDermott made parts for his chainsaw. And they have seen the students invent whatever they can imagine:

“He was showing me his showlaces his wife made him and he put a magnet in them so that he doesn’t have to tie his shoes anymore. They just snap shut. It’s pretty excellent and he walks around with a 3-D printed pair of shoelaces.”

Joel Sturm said the characteristics of 3-D printing make it perfect for custom medical prostheses – artificial body parts.

“One of their advantages is that complexity is free. It doesn’t matter if you’re printing a box or if you’re printing a box that has a whole bunch of ornate shapes and things and text on it. It’s gonna take the printer about the same amount of time to as just doing it layer by layer. And complexity is free and anatomy matter. We can all have our ow individual thing now. We can have the thing that is tailored to us.”

So that thing you ordered a week ago? Soon you’ll be manufacturing it yourself.