Building Bridges: 3-D Printing Takes Shape at Armstrong


Spatial visualization is an important skill for students to master in Dr. Wayne Johnson’s Engineering Graphics course at Armstrong. However, not everyone grasps the concept right off the bat.

“Either they get it right away or they don't,” explains Johnson, an associate professor in Armstrong’s College of Science and Technology.

Traditionally, students would draft two-dimensional figures on paper and then, if necessary, use a computer-aided design (CAD) model of the object to explore their results. 

“Still, this is not as good as a physical 3-D model, which allows for a tactile sort of experience with the object and is able to help students with improving spatial visualization skills,” he says.

Johnson is currently working with other Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math (STEAM) professors on campus to expand new learning opportunities for all students using state-of-the-art 3-D printers.

As a result, difficult theories in organic chemistry are now being demonstrated with greater ease. Microscopic algae comes to life in biology classes. The Math department has employed 3-D printing to support the learning of complex shapes and validate the optimization  of bridge structures. In addition, the Physics department recently created a sundial model for testing and colleagues in sports medicine now use touch-sensitive gloves, fitted with sensors and a 3-D printed housing, for necessary electronic sensor components.

3-D printing is a fabrication technique in which a CAD model is used to build a physical model one layer at a time. Johnson first used the technology seven years ago in his Engineering Graphics course. He was able to expand Armstrong’s use of 3-D printing across STEAM disciplines last year with the acquisition of a Stratasys uPrint SE. This system prints parts by extruding ABS thermoplastic through a heated nozzle and can fabricate objects in a few hours, depending on the part’s size and complexity.

“There has been a very strong response from students,” he notes. “They get to see that the tools they're learning about have real use applications.”

In what is being dubbed the third industrial revolution, companies around the world are investing millions into 3-D technology that is having a transformative effect on industries across the board.  Housing materials, titanium, batteries and even human cartilage can be “printed” in some of the newest applications.

Associate art professor Angela Horne bolsters her Armstrong design classes with the technology. In her typography class, students created their own typefaces and then transferred them into a three-dimension form to spell out the word, “TYPOGRAPHY.” She is currently entering the class project in an international graphic design contest, Students also designed logos and translated the images into 3-D printable versions. 

Horne sees 3-D printing as an exciting new option for undergraduate visual arts students at Armstrong.

“Using new software and processes, students take their 2-D work into the third dimension,” she says. “Translating a flat graphic into a 3-D logo is special challenge, but the students get giddy about it.”

For Horne, using a 3-D printer serves as a natural extension of the creative process in the classroom.

“3-D printing is infiltrating many areas of our lives, so I think it's important to not only conceptualize in this manner, but also to create with this technology,” she adds. “This technology is applicable to so many different jobs. It’s exciting to have 3-D printing available for our visual arts programs at Armstrong.”