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UNI has one of the continent's largest 3-D printers

UNI has one of the continent's largest 3-D printers

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WATERLOO | The Cedar Valley Techworks facility hissed as an outtake pipe released a billow of steam into the frigid morning air. The doors were locked with chains at the slumbering biotech building, the paint on the brickwork chipping, and all the windows from ground level up were darkened.

But behind a bank of frosty panes on the third floor, in a room glowing with the diffuse light of fluorescent tubes, rests the ExOne S-Max 3-D printer, one of the largest in all of North America.

Inside the facility, Jerry Thiel, the director of the University of Northern Iowa’s metal casting center, strolled past plastic-wrapped storage containers, half-assembled steel shelves and work tables cluttered with debris and creased composition notebooks. A 2-foot-long dragon made of sand sealed in black-hued binding agent snarled up from a handcart nearby.

“Just something for fun,” Thiel said, gesturing to the casting center’s prized possession, the 3-D printer crouched at the back of the room.

The machine is massive. A glass-fitted chamber housed in a bulky metal casing, it looks like something built by a mad scientist for time travel or unsanctioned genetic tampering.

What it actually does is just as much the product of science fiction. Using a combination of pure and recycled silica sands, UNI’s S-Max -- serial number 30 -- prints large-scale three dimensional objects, layer by 1/7,000th of an inch layer at a time.

Pretty much any solid object imaginable that can fit in the machine’s chamber -- two meters long by a meter wide and a meter deep -- can be printed as a sand composite at a rate of 45 minutes per square inch.

“The flexibility we have with this unit is amazing,” Thiel said.

UNI purchased the $1.5 million S-Max last September using $1.2 million in funds provided by the Iowa Department of Economic Development. Since then, the university has been paying off the remaining $300,000 from the sales of 3-D printed scale prototypes and high-resolution molds and cores for use by private industrial enterprises. Thiel said the printer can produce up to 3,000 pounds worth of molds and cores of various sizes and shapes at a time.

From those molds and cores are cast the metal components of machines used by companies all over the country. Some of the clients currently utilizing UNI’s specialized 3-D printing capabilities include John Deere, Sivyer Steel, Wayne Engineering, American Pattern and Honeywell Aerospace. One Michigan-based client has commissioned the printer to produce molds for an innovative encapsulated fuel cell.

“We can do things that other people can’t,” Thiel said as he demonstrated the fabricating process, which can be observed through one of several windows that punctuate the printer’s metal housing. Tapping a grubby thumb drive into a USB port, he entered a few functions into an attached computer terminal running a computer-aided design program for Windows XP. On the monitor hovered a cluster of 3-D test renderings, a series of six inch bars and peanut shapes arranged like cookies spread across a baking sheet.

At the press of a button, the S-Max activated. A pair of plastic houses sucked the silica sands from external storage containers into a cylindrical mixer within the printing compartment. The machine hummed as the sands combined, and with a dull mechanical whine, a robotic arm slung on a series of tracks glided over the printing bed, spreading a uniform layer of sand no more than three grains deep.

Once the sand was down the robot arm wheeled around for another pass, spraying out a polymerized binding agent in the shape of each individual test piece. A new layer of sand was spread across the bed, sealing one layer on top of the next, and the mesmerizing cycle repeated.

Having this kind of technology is a huge asset for all parties involved, Thiel said. For Iowa-based private industries, the availability of a state-of-the-art 3-D printer has a significant positive impact on the typically costly and time-consuming manufacturing process for prototypes and molds.

“The possibilities with this for entrepreneurs and innovators are endless,” Thiel said. “With this, your imagination is the only thing that limits you.”

The metal casting center’s students in turn are trained how to use the printer, a skill that certainly can’t hurt when listed on a resume.

“It’s a huge advantage for our students, being able to get this kind of exposure to this kind of technology,” Thiel said.

The 3-D printer is only the beginning of an advanced manufacturing center the metal casting center is hoping to develop at Cedar Valley Techworks. The next powerhouse Thiel would like to add to his arsenal of manufacturing tech is a direct-to-metal 3-D printer, a machine that prints objects in layers of metal rather than layers of sand.

But that addition is still a long way off. In the mean time, Thiel will continue to direct the use of the ExOne S-Max for the benefit of the university and private industry in the development of new models and materials research.

For those interested in using UNI’s 3-D printing technology, contact Thiel at 273-6894.

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General assignment reporter for the Courier

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