A 3D chess piece - the rook

February 9, 2024, by Laura Nicholson

Engineering Faculty Takeover: Rapid Prototyping and 3D Printing Technologies

Throughout the 2023–4 academic year, we are running a new feature on the Learning Technology (LT) blog: a faculty takeover month! Each month, we will feature posts from different faculty members at the university. Every Friday, posts will highlight interesting work and ideas related to technology in teaching and learning and showcase unique projects from within the various disciplines across the UoN. So far, we have promoted the work of the Faculties of Science, Medicine and Health Sciences, and Arts. This month, we welcome posts from the Faculty of Engineering.

This week, Simon Harrison, Associate Professor in Engineering and Digital Learning Director for the Faculty of Engineering, introduces us to the 3D printing facilities available to students. We also hear from two students who provide us with an insight into their experiences of transforming their CAD models into reality!

Author: Simon Harrison

Do any of you know much about 3D printing?  If you don’t, then it’s basically a digital process where machines create a solid object from the base up.  Layer by layer.  It’s been around as a technology now for a little while.  The first machines were showcased in 1988 on a BBC TV programme called “Tomorrows World”, look it up on YouTube if you don’t know it.

Most machines come with test files to check if they’re all working correctly.  The most commonly used is the Rook, a chess piece.  Except its not a Rook……  its actually the University of Nottingham logo!

In the early days, we had one of the first research teams working with the technology, and a PhD student whose name is lost in the annuls of history, built a test model that went on to be shared and used by everyone.

Fast forward 30 years, and within the department of Mechanical Materials and Manufacturing Engineering (M3), we still have one of the leading research groups in the discipline within the UK, but we now have one of the best student-facing facilities too.

It’s taken a while to build up – sorry about the pun. I created our student facility about 20 years ago, when it only had a few machines and a limited number of students using it. Now, with a fantastic technical team growing and supporting it, it has over 70 machines and is open every weekday to over a thousand students.

Nearly all new technologies face a barrier of user adoption, and this was true at the university too.  When the rapid prototyping lab was shown to staff, it was seen as a toy too many.  “Not proper engineering” I can remember one colleague saying.  Given time though, its benefits became apparent, and students led its use. Slowly, the technology was accepted, and then this is where the real growth happened. Today, it is the manufacturing method of choice.

The benefits of this technology, if you were wondering, are, of course, what you would expect from the digitalisation of a process.  Speed, accuracy, and repeatability.  Making things by hand with manual machine tools is hard.  It takes a long time to become proficient at, and it takes up your precious study time to do.  Printing something is a lot easier.

As part of our mix of 3D printers and processes, we have some machines that are state-of-the art, but we don’t want just these.  Its important that students get a chance to be hands-on without the financial risk of breaking things. To this end, we have a large print farm of “affordable” devices.  Students operate these themselves; they look after them well, but if a few get broken now and again, its not a problem for us or for the student.  This approach encourages use and develops skills and expertise within our students.

The facility is essential now for helping Engineers do what they do.  Make things.

Jason Young: Rapid Prototyping Technician.

The Rapid Prototyping Facility gives students instant access to turn 3-dimensional CAD models that they have created into reality with a minimum of training and minimum health and safety implications.  Without a doubt, this has changed the quality of student learning by allowing them to realise their ideas quickly.

It’s a very busy lab, with anywhere between 50 and 200 students a day using the facility.  They get to use it on coursework, projects, and even to make small personal items.  We don’t make the students pay to make things; this would be wrong, as we are asking them to make them in the first place.  The machines are typically so low-cost to run that it’s not even effective to track costs per student anyway.

Myself and Simon Lawes (Mechanical Engineering course director) have been working on the next generation of the lab and are in the process of implementing it.  The new systems will have AI built into the process, monitoring builds, spotting errors, and sending updates on progress directly to the students.  The students will be able to send prints to be made at any time, even at 2 a.m. in the morning.  It will provide a 24-hour service, seven days a week—except for picking up the models, of course.

The lab where the 3D printing takes place showing students using the machines.

Rupert Easton: 4th Year Mechanical Engineering student

I’m in the middle of my final year individual project to optimise the end of wind turbine blades.

The lab is a really valuable asset to me within my project. I have been able to run Computational Fluid Dynamics applications to evaluate my designs, but this lab allows me to make models to enable access to one of our faculty’s wind tunnels and run physical testing.

I have been in early every morning this week using the lab. I probably didn’t learn as many workshop skills as I could have in earlier years of my degree, but using the 3D printers is really quick to learn, so it hasn’t held me back.  I’m now picking up the skills I missed earlier.  I have needed to make a few test prints to check my design, but now I just need to print the final 10 parts of my design.  It should all be done this week.

Calling all blog volunteers!

Would you like to promote how technology is being used in your faculty? Maybe you have some students who are also keen to share how technology has enhanced their learning experiences.  If you are interested in submitting a blog post about your use of technology for teaching and learning, please do get in touch. Find out how to submit a post, or arrange to have a chat about ideas 

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