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Printing the Future in 3D

3-D printers have quickly found a home on many college campuses and businesses in just the past few years.  One such printer in Western Virginia is geared toward educating the public on what the future holds. Star Trek fans are familiar with “replicators”.  You just tell the machine what you want and it immediately appears.  Science might not be that advanced yet but it’s well on its way.

At first glance, the MakerBot Replicator 2, located at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, looks like an ordinary inkjet printer, but. . .

“It’s printing layer by layer and you can see the filament is coming, like the cartridge instead of printing paper and the text on it we have the ABS plastic that is coming through here and this particular printer is dual, so there’s two colors that we can print at the same time and mix them.”

Cindy Petersen is the Taubman’s Deputy Director of Education and says the nozzles on the 3-D printer reach 220 C when operating.

“So you can see how it’s coming through and printing layer by layer the object and sometimes it’s hollow in the inside and sometimes it’s filled, depending on the design.”

It takes between 75 minutes and two hours to print out a three to six inch model, about the size and weight and made of the same material as a Lego.  On this particular day it printed a small replica of Burris Hall on the Virginia Tech campus, complete with a tiny VT logo.

Petersen says this is the only such printer in the area that’s being operated on a consistent basis for demonstrations, classes, and public workshops. The demonstrations are part of the interactive area of Art Venture-an art gallery for children and families. 

“And 3-D printing is one of the stations in the Art Venture area for connecting the 3-D printing and how it’s used in art, architecture, and engineering.”

Museum employees hold demonstrations the second Saturday of each month.  At a recent demo, children and adults stopped by to see it in action. 

“asking questions, actually seeing a 3-D printer printing different objects; being able to touch and handle the different things that have come out of this particular 3-D printer.” 

Ten-year-old Logan Broughman from Eagle Rock and 8-year-old Preston from Blacksburg and their families are fascinated.

“Cause you don’t see many unique stuff from them.”

“What is it copying” Where is the original?”

“There’s a file on the SD card here and it just reads it and prints it out from there.”

“Can you make sharp things that can cut like a knife?”

“Now, we couldn’t do that with this 3-D printer.  That’s a good question.”

The Taubman’s printer is a small hobby printer but larger machines print jewelry, shoes, metal and cement.

A 3-D printer has other uses as well.  Grayson VanBeuren is a museum intern from Virginia Tech and explains there’s a free online program that allows you to take multiple photos of a large object and then create a miniature replica.  On the table next to the printer is a 2-foot-tall bird sculpture. 

“I was actually able to take something like I think it was something like 150-it was ridiculous number of photos for this but able to make it into a little 3-D model and then print it out.”

Petersen says they could use this feature to expand some of the museum’s permanent collections such as the Judith Leiber handbags or maybe print out sculptures from the museum’s permanent collection.

“So that the children, you know you can’t touch it when it’s in the galleries but you could then touch a replication in 3-D and see that part of it.”

She says people already going into museums, digitizing objects and putting them up online for other enthusiasts to print out.  But even with the possibility of everyone having a Mona Lisa on their wall, Petersen doesn’t think that will cheapen art.

“Some artists are very excited about the process so that so there’s a part of where they’re creating art or if they’re creating a sculpture.”

“It’s used across fields-architecture, engineering, parts for hearing aids, parts to see if something’s going to fit and then doing the actual print.”

3-D printers are also being used to recreate broken or missing parts in the automobile industry.  Next fall, astronauts on the International Space Station will be able to print out their own replacement parts. And NASA is working with a Texas company to use a 3-D printer for making food in space. . .maybe with more than one kind of tomato soup. 

The Taubman Museum will host a Saturday workshop for all ages in the spring for people to write a program and print their own object.