When an art student at the University of Washington wanted to bring her vision of a futuristic animal to life last semester, she didn't draw, paint, or sculpt it. She printed it—in three dimensions—using a machine that rendered her design from powdered bone.
The student, Juliana Meira do Valle, has since printed 3-D replicas of mouse skulls and is designing an experimental wedding veil that looks like it's growing out of the wearer's head, all with a machine that was once only used by engineering students.
"A lot of the stuff I'm interested in is conceptual work, art, experimental media," she says, "and 3-D printing creates a shift where you can do the hands-on part of that."
Colleges and universities are finding more and more uses for 3-D-printing technology, which has grown in sophistication and fallen in price in recent years. Some proponents argue that nearly every discipline could benefit from the ability to easily create objects from customized designs. "We want this for humanities, for social sciences, for bio people, for law school, so what's interesting about 3-D printing is that it touches on all these areas," says Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering and of computing and information science at Cornell University, who is creating a 3-D-printing course for nonengineers.
Professors around the country, including Mr. Lipson, are developing open-source designs for 3-D printers, in the hope of further lowering the cost. In some cases, their efforts have sparked fights with manufacturers, who argue that their patents are being violated by the professors' creations.
Even so, Mark Ganter, a professor of mechanical engineering at Washington, says 3-D printers will continue to proliferate, and to go beyond college campuses.
"With 3-D printers, they're either going to get to the ubiquity of Kinko's, or lots of people are going to have them in their house," he says.
Body Parts and Bone
The ability to print a 3-D object may sound like science fiction, but it has been around in some form since the 1980s. Also called rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing, the idea is to take a design from a computer file and forge it into an object, often in flat cross-sections that can be assembled into a larger whole. While the printer on your desk uses ink on paper, these printers usually take powder or plastic that they mold into thin layers of material.
To get an idea of how far the technology has come, consider the work of Brandon Bowman, 28, a former blacksmith who is now studying at Washington. He is working with a hand surgeon to see if the technology can print body parts.
Years ago Mr. Bowman lost the tip of a finger in a metal-shop accident. A friend told him to leave the wound alone and let the nub of flesh grow back on its own. It did, and he has been interested in regenerative medicine ever since.
After attending a talk by Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest University's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, about the bioengineering possibilities of 3-D printing, Mr. Bowman enrolled at Washington specifically because of its Solheim Additive Manufacturing Laboratory. Now he is at work on printing a biological scaffold, material engineered to maintain a specific shape while cells grow around it. Declared as an art major, Mr. Bowman is petitioning the university to develop his own degree in rapid prototyping.
"It's astounding that you can print out a 3-D object and literally breathe life into it with cells that are essentially computer firmware," he says, referring to the software that controls the machinery.
Mr. Bowman also helped found Washington Open Object Fabricators, a student group. This summer members retrieved discarded plastic from trash cans and tried running it through the printer as raw material to form new objects. It's a project with implications for public policy in places like Hawaii, he notes, where plastic waste is typically shipped elsewhere to be recycled because the islands lack the necessary processing facilities.
"If you have that cost allocated for shipping, why not build one of these systems where you can take that plastic and print it into a surfboard, cutting board, tabletops?" Mr. Bowman asks.
The technology also promises to bring the past to 3-D life. Kenneth Lacovara, a biologist at Drexel University uses the campus lab to print copies of dinosaur fossils, which he lets his students handle. "I can only have so many undergraduates in my lab, but I can give thousands of students the experience of what it's like to hold a dinosaur bone and see the richness of detail contained in an ancient fossil," says the associate professor. His students can't go on the actual digs, but the printer has helped him replicate the experience.
3-D for the Masses
Given those possibilities, it's every mechanical-engineering student's dream to work with a 3-D printer, says Mr. Ganter, of Washington. But while most major mechanical-engineering departments now have the machines, only recently have they moved beyond those confines.
A key factor is the open-source 3-D printers, which have made the technology affordable. Open-source enthusiasts design small 3-D printers, usually from expired patents, and post instructions online so others can follow their lead. That makes it possible for do-it-yourselfers to buy the parts and build their own printers for a price hovering in the hundreds of dollars, rather than the thousands that off-the-shelf 3-D printers cost. In a campus setting, the cheaper printers provide the opportunity for more students to make their own designs, creating what Mr. Ganter calls "a paradigm shift in education."
Mr. Lipson, at Cornell, started one of the earliest open-source 3-D-printer efforts, called the Fab@Home project. Working with students at Cornell's Creative Machines Lab, he created the project's first homemade printer in 2006, and has since helped produce three more versions of it.
"I wanted something that would allow undergraduates to try their own printer, try crazy materials, not worry too much if they blew up the printer," he says. "If they broke it, they could just break a new one, I didn't want something to cost $100,000."
Mr. Ganter's team, at Washington, has also designed open-source printers. "We wish to make sure that we continue to share in that tradition," he says. "The more people have access to this, the more the technology will develop."
But his lab has come under fire because of friction between open-source advocates and companies, like 3-D Systems, that hold related patent rights. Last year the Z Corporation, which manufactures 3-D printers, sent a cease-and-desist letter to Mr. Ganter's lab, says Gerald Barnett, director of the Research Technology Enterprise Initiative, a nonprofit consulting group for intellectual property and other intangible assets. He says the company did not detail any specific patent violations but asserted overall infringement and argued that others learning about the lab's efforts could try to replicate its ideas and, in so doing, violate patents.
The result of such patent disputes is that certain aspects of 3-D-printing technology remain available only to those who can afford the corporate-sold printers. While Mr. Ganter's students have figured out how to print from bulk materials that cost only a few dollars a pound, patent battles could restrict students to printing only on corporate-sold printers, using corporate-approved materials.
(That particular dispute may have been resolved. Z Corporation has been bought out by 3-D Systems, which has not followed up on the cease-and-desist letter. A representative of 3-D Systems could not be reached for comment. Mr. Barnett says other patent issues remain unresolved.)
In a paper Mr. Lipson helped to write for the White House Office of Science and Technology, he advocates putting a personal manufacturing lab in every elementary and secondary school, and integrating 3-D printing curriculum early.
He is also working with Glenn L. Bull, co-director of the Center for Technology and Teacher Education at the University of Virginia, on Fab@School, which brings the technology to secondary schools. Last summer, Fab@School organized a summer camp for high-school students who, in one week, went from having no knowledge to designing products like multidirectional pencil holders, and selling them online.
Mr. Ganter sees 3-D printing as a way to hook younger students on engineering fields. This year his class printed 8,000 edible cookies for an engineering open house for visiting junior-high and high-school students. They were more excited by the printed cookies than by anything else, he says.
The Washington professor's students have also used the technology to print a device for NASA that, when sent into outer space, would store fuel in zero gravity. If institutions can develop early interest in engineering, and maintain sufficient access for kids to nurture this interest, he says, "soon we are going to try to figure out how to print on the moon."