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Carroll County Times

3-D printing can make manufacturing more affordable

Jim Gilford, engineering teacher at the Carroll County Career and Technology Center, in Westminster, talks about different ways to make a prototype.

The 3-D printer the Carroll County Career and Technology Center bought cost about $100,000 eight years ago. Now, the same kind of printer could be bought for about $15,000, said Jim Gilford, the manufacturing teacher at the center.

Affordability is what has taken the concept of 3-D printing out of labs and into classrooms and even homes, he said.

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Wednesday, the Carroll County Board of Education approved a new 3-D printer for Gilford's class, which costs $40,000. That includes a three-year warranty and two years' worth of materials, Principal Bill Eckles said.

How a 3-D printer works depends on the computer programs and the capabilities of the printer itself. Most rely on computer-engineered designs, but others can use photo technology to scan an object and create a replica.

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Think about a simple object like a chess piece. A 3-D printer takes the computer-engineered design of a chess piece and creates incremental layers in a machine.

It begins at the bottom of the design, creating a base using two kinds of plastic.

The first is a movable, thin, wire-like reel of plastic that's used to make the same materials from which LEGOs are made.

It also uses a water-soluble liquid that melts the layers together.

One computer program allows the user to design the object, and a second computer program translates that to the 3-D printer.

It can take anywhere from four to 12 hours to produce an item that used to take weeks or months prior to the kind of technology that exists now, he said.

Gilford's students begin using the printer by October, and often use it through senior year, he said.

The 3-D printer helps them think about affordability and cost, as well as engineering and mechanics, he said.

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"As an engineer you have to save time and money," he said.

For instance, most of the chess pieces he makes come in two pieces, because they use less material that way, he said. Students also learn to think about size and tolerance - meaning how small or big the 3-D printer can produce an item.

While a computer can understand small, accurate sizes, the machine may not be able to translate that, he said.

The newest 3-D printer the Tech Center is getting will be more accurate and will allow the students to make more than one prototype at one time. Only one piece at a time can be made in the current model. The new one will allow for several of the same design. It also allows for different kinds of plastic, Eckles said.

Newer versions of 3-D printers allow for different kinds of metals to be used or even for the ability to take a photo of something and develop a program that will see how the product works, said Matt Day, the director of workforce training and business services at Carroll Community College.

As 3-D printers become more affordable, businesses could soon take advantage of the technologies that are offered. For instance, Day said, if a business needs one part for an item, they could simply get it made to order for them. Or make it themselves.

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"The business opportunities for this are going to be tremendous," Day said. "We're seeing in some cases that businesses are starting to take advantage of that."

It also gives the ability for more innovation and creativity because of the opportunity to create just one or a few prototypes as opposed to getting it mass manufactured, he said.

"If you had an invention and it had to be manufactured, you'd have to find a company that would manufacture that and they would probably require you to order thousands of them," he said.

While Carroll Community College has ordered two 3-D printers, they haven't received either yet, he said. Companies are on waiting lists because of the demand for the products. The community college ordered its 3-D printer four months ago, Day said.

Denise Beaver, the deputy director for the Carroll County Department of Economic Development, said 3-D printing has the opportunity to change the way manufacturing is done due to the opportunity for prototypes.

"This is just going to revolutionize the whole industry," she said.


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