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Professor offers students 3-D printing machine

This summer Mark Weston, assistant professor in the School of Architecture, will spend a considerable amount of time in a laboratory, even though the machine he built is out of commission.

Weston’s machine is one of two 3-D printers in the architecture building. Weston is also in charge of developing the fabrication laboratory, or “fab lab,” and working with students who might need to print their own 3-D images, which are created with plastic or plaster.

Weston, who said he likes to build things, said every student at USF with an approved project has access to the machine with his go-ahead. When the “Makerbot” machine Weston built was operational, before one of its pieces became loose, he said he was using it everyday.

“I’m just a gadget guy,” Weston said. “I just love this stuff.”

3-D images are created through software programs, such as Rhinoceros, and once an individual clicks print on their computer, the machine melts ABS plastic – a thermoplastic that deforms as temperature increases, Weston said. Once deformed, the plastic gains a thread-like thickness and is used to create the plastic object based on the design on the computer.

A Dimension ABS printer in the architecture building prints in plastic, while a Z Corp printer in a engineering building prints differently in plaster.

Weston said he built the “Makerbot” ABS plastic printer in the architecture building last summer, and all the printers work similarly to create 3-D printouts.

Luciano Esposito, who graduated in spring with a degree in architecture, said he and another student are using the laboratory to create a 3-D model proposal for a yet-to-be-built museum in an architecture project.

“It was an international competition in Turkey for a museum,” Esposito said. “They needed a place to display all the artifacts they find from the city of Troy from their archaeological digs. We find out at the end of the month whether we won.”

Besides making models, Weston said the printers can create parts, such as a swivel valve he created to increase the mobility of a plastic hose within the fab lab.

“You can use this stuff to print scale models, but you can also print one-to-one parts,” he said.

Weston said the day when home-based 3-D printing machines take prevalence over consumer stores has already begun in the homes of hobbyists such as himself and could make its way into Third World countries.

“It’s happening,” he said. “(People) want to take this stuff into remote villages and print replacement parts for other machines and infrastructure.”

Weston’s printer looks like a two-foot-tall wooden box, with wires and circuit boards exposed, while the Dimension printer looks like a microwave standing on its side. The printers cannot print without measurements inputted into the design schematic and the printers cannot print images larger than their capacity.

“What’s interesting about the Makerbot machine is that you can make all of it yourself,” he said. “For instance, we have a laser-cutter downstairs, (and) I cut all the pieces out for the housing.”

Weston said both the hardware and software for the machine were open-source technology, and the entire machine cost him about $300 to produce along with eight hours of his own labor.

“All this stuff is available online or at the hardware store,” he said. “I bought 90 percent of this from the hardware store.”

Weston said the lab exists for students because the “world is changing” in design.

“We need to keep students (connected) with current happenings in the design world,” Weston said. “One of the things that’s happening is digital fabrication in the design world and we need to keep students abreast with that.”