UNL students solve southpaws' woes with 3-D printer

2014-07-27T05:00:00Z UNL students solve southpaws' woes with 3-D printerBy CHRIS DUNKER / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Rifle Club had plenty of .22-caliber and air rifle equipment available for its members — southpaws excluded.

“All of the grips we have are interchangeable -- which is nice -- but we don’t have very many for left-handed people,” senior shooter Ashlee Anderson said.

Club members could have easily gone online and bought the parts they were looking for, but instead, they looked across campus for a solution.

UNL's College of Engineering was happy to oblige.

Using a right-handed grip as a model, the engineering students created a 3-D scan and uploaded it into a computer, mirroring it and sending it to the printer.

The Makerbot Replicator Z18 3-D printer, installed in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics lab in Othmer Hall earlier this month, set to work melting a spool of polylactic acid into a usable grip.

Thirty-two hours later, the print job was finished.

“That’s a long time, but it beat the computer’s guess of 42 hours,” said Matt Mahlin, a mechanical engineering graduate student.

The Makerbot is one of two 3-D printers to go online at UNL this month, although the student-run printer paid for through differential tuition and assistance from the Office of Research may be more active at first.

The other, capable of printing different materials and colors simultaneously and with greater accuracy, went online Friday in the Nebraska Center for Materials and Nanoscience.

Printing plastics, metals and other materials into custom designs isn’t just for fun, even though the AIAA’s tests have included everything from a miniature space shuttle to a model of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Ship of the Imaginations from the television show “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.”

There are some practical lessons to be learned through 3-D printing too, especially as the practice trickles down from big business to university campuses across the country and the costs of printers and the materials they use continue to fall.

“It’s great for prototyping and perhaps creating molds for injection molding,” Mahlin said. “It’s great for what we do and making new designs and learning to transform something from your 3-D model into a physical part.”

The 3-D printing is enhancing mechanical and materials engineering education, professor of practice Karen Stelling said, rather than replacing the techniques being taught in the engineering school decade after decade.

“Even if 3-D printing can do some specialized things, it’s not always the answer,” Stelling said. “It takes 32 hours to print a rifle grip, so if you were to do mass quantities, that may not be your best choice.”

Deciding which may be the best approach is an educational lesson in itself, Stelling said, as students must weigh the cost and benefits of traditional versus new manufacturing practices.

Jim McManis, the manager of the Engineering and Science Research Support Facility, said unlike 20th century manufacturing rendering the 19th century blacksmith obsolete, 3-D printing technology is more likely to aid and assist the manufacturing process.

Mahlin said engineering students are aware of the current limitations of 3-D printing, as well as the possibilities.

But still, it's pretty cool to make something new and original, and even more fun to help other students with a unique request, Mahlin said.

Anderson said both the Rifle Club and the engineering students benefited from the project.

“This was a really cool way we could collaborate with another group on campus,” she said.

The successful job has the student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics looking for more ways it can help students solve problems on campus, senior Bryan Kubitscheck said.

“We really want to spread the capabilities we have and expand opportunities for other students,” Kubitschek said. “There’s no reason to hide something as unique as this.”

And if a few dozen southpaws join the Rifle Club this year, the club said it would be happy to help.

“We’ll find a way to make the grips faster,” Mahlin said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com. On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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