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  • Students examine a 3D printed drone and a round component designed to hold a stylized table's legs in place.
    Students examine a 3D printed drone and a round component designed to hold a stylized table's legs in place.
    Credit: Caltech
02/27/2017 11:10:14

Something New to Check Out at the Library: 3D Printers

The TechLab at Sherman Fairchild Library helps members of the Caltech community get started in 3D printing

If you can dream it up, you can probably print it out.

Since 2015, the TechLab at Sherman Fairchild Library has been offering the tools, training, and materials to allow members of the Caltech community to get started in 3D printing. Aucoeur Christine Ngo, TechLab manager, says more than a hundred students, faculty, and staff members have registered to use the 3D printers, producing items including models of chemical compounds, human brains, and robotics hands, as well as crucial spare parts for out-of-production lab equipment.

"The response has been really enthusiastic," Ngo says. "We have our TechLab power users, but others initially come in with little more than a rough sketch idea.  It's a pretty versatile technology: users from any discipline can find something to print that will be useful for their labs or relevant to their research."

The lab, located in Room 131 of the Sherman Fairchild Library, is free to use and provides desktop equipment related to prototyping and modeling, including a variety of 3D printers, scanners, and microcontroller and mini-computer circuit boards that enable electronics prototyping. Library staff members provide training classes and on-site orientation and guidance in the use of the equipment. Workstations throughout the library provide access to SolidWorks, the main campus software used to create and manipulate 3D images for printing. Anyone with a Caltech ID can register to use the lab, which was established with support from the Moore-Hufstedler Fund.

Several undergraduates in the ME 14 class "Introduction to Mechanical Engineering Design" recently used the lab to create flexible tentacles for a prototype of an artificial autonomous jellyfish. The finished product is on display on the second floor of Parsons-Gates, Ngo says.

During a presentation held in Millikan Library's 9th floor Lookout, Russell Singer from Makeit, Inc.—an Alhambra-based 3D printing company—described advanced methods for 3D printing and featured 3D printed items such as flyable drones, furniture components, and handmade stereo speakers. Afterward, as the Caltech community members in attendance examined the finished products, Ngo noted the lab is designed "to provide users the freedom to experiment and tinker around."

More often than not, the "tinkering" is directed to educational ends. For example, TAs have used the equipment to create molecular orbital models for chemistry class demonstrations. But lab staffers have also seen their share of whimsical tchotchkes—plastic pangolins are in vogue at the moment.

"While the priority is on projects related to their research, we recognize learning sometimes happens peripherally, so users have the flexibility to print almost anything," she says. "Our role is making sure they are comfortable operating the machines, then off they go."

The TechLab is available for use by anyone with a Caltech ID. The Lab is open to registered users 8 a.m.– 10 p.m., Mondays–Thursdays, and 8 a.m.–5 p.m. on Fridays, and by key checkout all other hours SFL is open. TechLab staff are available for assistance, training, and registration Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays 3–5 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays 1–5 p.m and other times by appointment.

Written by Jon Nalick