California State University, Long Beach
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Replicating Rapid Prototyper Lets You “Print It While You Sleep”

Published: September 4, 2012

The Los Angeles student chapter at CSULB of the Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) and CSULB’s Embedded Applications Technology Society (EAT) are collaborating to build more than 20 RepRap 3D Printers which represent the first step toward the legendary Star Trek “replicators.”

RepRap (Replicating Rapid Prototyper) takes the form of a desktop 3D printer capable of printing plastic objects. Since many parts of RepRap are made from plastic and RepRap prints those parts, RepRap self-replicates.

“RepRap is about making self-replicating machines and making them easily available for the benefit of everyone. These 3D printers allow the students to build prototypes of their projects quickly as well as cost effectively,” explained Design’s Shelley Takahashi, a member of the university since 2011 and chair for IDSA-LA. “Design it tonight and print it while you sleep. The technology that this printer uses will be the predecessor of the ‘Star Trek’ replicators. If you want a cup, this prototyper will make a cup. The student has to design the cup but the machine will print it. If you want a towel rack or a widget or a lamp, you can make it with this machine. This is where tomorrow is.”

The ultimate RepRap goal is for students to transform their drawings into solid works. “It is an expensive process for students at $50 to $100 per part using the university’s commercial machines,” she said. “The students design 24 hours a day. If you finish a design at midnight, you want to start making it. It can take eight hours to print out a single part. The student sets the prototyper at midnight so that they have a printed part for their morning class at a fraction of the cost of the university machines.”

Benjamin Cannon and Keith Shintaku
CSULB students (l-r) Ben Cannon and Keith Shintaku.

College of Engineering graduate student Ben Cannon was the first CSULB student to make a printer, Takahashi said. “He used his printer to make the plastic connectors that hold the metal structure together for the Embedded Applications Technology Society’s 20-plus machines,” she said. “These 3D printers allow the students to build prototypes of their projects quickly as well as cost effectively.”

The EAT Society’s purpose is to introduce students to new technologies and promote CSULB to the outside world. “EAT’s main focus is the design of devices that require a dedicated computer or microprocessor to accomplish its task,” said Takahashi.

The price tag for commercial 3D machines can soar over $30,000. “But by working together, we made our own for around $550. It was a challenge,” she added. “Some students found themselves soldering circuit boards for the first time. It was an eye-opening experience.”

“I really like the RepRap project for a couple of reasons,” said Cannon. “Mainly, it’s the experience you get from building one from scratch and then, when you’re finished you literally have a desktop manufacturing facility (a machine that can create just about anything for you, as long as its main material is plastic).

“Building a 3D printer puts pretty much everyone out of their comfort zone,” he added. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a computer science, industrial design or mechanical engineering student, you’re going to be learning something you’ve never done before. The computer science and industrial design students had some trouble with soldering, but that’s the point. When the ordeal is over, they’ve learned a new skill and they become makers and do-it-yourselfers. That’s why I particularly like the people involved building a printer from scratch. You’re just not going to get that experience in a pre-made kit. Then, the students can take their printer and new learned skills to their respective disciplines and make amazing things.”

Shelly Takahashi
Shelley Takahashi

The EAT students knew how to build the machines because they’d done it before. But for the Industrial Design students, it was a nervous experience. “Assembling the machines was quite difficult,” Takahashi recalled. The EAT Society has set up a Facebook page called Reprap Utopia. The club posts their progress as well as the links to the software and hardware used on their machines.

The modern replicator is like a glue gun, she said. “It extrudes plastic material like frosting on a cake. It makes the objects we design. Instead of printing designs on paper, we print the parts in three dimensions,” she explained. RepRap uses a variant of fused deposition modeling, an additive manufacturing technique. The Wiki RepRap project calls it Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF) to avoid trademark issues around the “fused deposition modeling” term. As an open design, all of the designs produced by the project are released under a free software license, the GNU General Public License. To date, the Wiki RepRap project has released four 3D printing machines: “Darwin” in 2007, “Mendel” in 2009 and “Prusa Mendel” and “Huxley” in 2010. (The machines were named for famous biologists to underline the point of RepRap representing replication and evolution.) The CSULB students produced the Prusa Mendel version. Since this DIY project is modular, the components are upgradable to construct future design of the machines.

Takahashi wants her students to value collaboration. “I want our industrial design program and College of Engineering students to get to know each other and make some friends. That is the most important thing to me,” she said. “I want our engineering students to understand what the design students see. Industrial design students understand what engineering students do but what design students do is a mystery to engineers. I want more collaboration.”

“These machines are ideal for small household and consumer electronic projects such as MP3 players, sunglasses, clocks, kitchen tools and desk accessories,” she added. “There even is a student who is planning to use the machines to create a miniature terrarium.”

Nothing is perfect. Parts are limited in size to eight by eight by five inches. Therefore, to make something large, the student must create it modularly then weld them together. “That is an education for students in itself,” she said.

The project took a lot more time than she expected but Takahashi is glad she participated. “It helped me to meet the engineering students and created opportunities for further collaboration. I have been talking with (EAT faculty advisor) Bob Ward of the Computer Science and Computer Engineering Department about future projects,” she said. “Right now, there are five participating ID students versus many more engineering students and I want industrial design students to get more involved,” said Takahashi, who earned her B.S. in Industrial Design from CSULB and her MBA from Pepperdine University. “I believe in networking and this project offers an excellent opportunity.”

For more information, visit www.lbmakersociety.org to learn more about the RepRap BUILD Series and sign up for future events.