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Entering the Third Dimension

3D printing is a hot topic these days. While printers ponder whether or not it makes sense to offer it, some in-plants have already made the investment and are reaping the rewards.

January 2014 By Bob Neubauer
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Dave Hadenfeldt was running late. The IT department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) was holding a "listening session" for anyone interested in 3D printing, and Hadenfeldt, director of Print, Copy, Mail & Distribution Services, wanted to attend.

He had been wrestling with the idea of adding a 3D printer to his 20-employee operation and wanted to find out how much interest there might be on campus. He was expecting maybe a dozen people at the meeting. But when Hadenfeldt opened the door and stepped into the room, his jaw dropped at what he saw.

"The room was full. It was standing room only," he recalls. "That's how we knew there was some interest there."

In October, the in-plant started offering 3D printing services using a MakerBot Replicator 2.

"It's about the size of a small microwave," observes Hadenfeldt.

So far, the device has printed a number of paying 3D projects for the in-plant, but more importantly it is keeping the in-plant relevant and bringing attention to its services.

"We decided that part of our mission is to stay on top of technology," explains Hadenfeldt, "and to be the university printer we have to be able to respond to what's out there."

Additive manufacturing—more commonly called 3D printing—is creating quite a buzz in the printing industry. Low-cost 3D printers have made this technology readily available, and printers have started offering this as a value-added service.

On university campuses, 3D printing labs for students are cropping up all over the country. Youngstown State University and Virginia Tech are just two schools whose 3D labs have been in the news. But not many in-plants have started offering this service, and this may be a missed opportunity.

Calling Attention to the In-plant

"I would recommend it," says Robert Carlson, manager of the print laboratory at South Dakota State University. After adding four MakerBot Replicator 2 printers, the Brookings, S.D., in-plant is not only generating revenue from 3D printing but is enjoying increased visibility because of the new service, which has led to an uptick in print work.

For a client hosting a recent conference, the in-plant printed a number of small trinkets to be given away during a presentation on 3D printing. The shop also printed the conference brochure.

"That little conference probably netted us, with the 3D trinkets and the printing, probably close to $3,000," Carlson remarks.

Though the SDSU engineering and architecture departments had 3D printing capabilities previously, the in-plant got into 3D printing after the university president spoke with department heads about creating a center where architecture and design students could do 3D printing for their courses.

"They called me up and I said, 'Oh yeah, we'd love to get involved in that,' " Carlson recalls.

As a result, SDSU's print lab was expanded and other new services were added, such as laser engraving, printing on fabrics and vinyl cutting with a Graphtec cutting plotter. The shop just added a 3D scanner as well. The Print Lab, staffed by 14 employees, is adjacent to SDSU's Imaging Center, which handles the university's offset, digital and wide-format printing needs and is run by one full-time employee, a contract worker and 11 student employees.

Carlson says students are the main users of the 3D printer to produce samples of projects they have designed. Other notable 3D jobs:

  • The psychology department faculty asked the in-plant to produce a tray to be used for studying water worms, and they were so pleased with the result, they ordered 10 more.
  • SDSU Parking Services asked the in-plant to replicate an internal plastic piece that had broken on one of its handheld ticketing devices. A student worker measured the broken part, designed a new one and used the 3D printer to create it. It fit perfectly.

At the University of Nebraska, the in-plant's first paying 3D job was the creation of 200 letter N's (for Nebraska) to be given to grade school students. The shop has printed battery tubes, iPhone cases, pendants, animal figures, furniture prototypes, a topographical map of the Ashfall Fossil Beds dig site and numerous student class projects. Many customers get their designs from MakerBot's Thingiverse website.

On the Crest of the 3D Wave

Over on the West Coast, Gordon Rivera, coordinator of Campus Graphics at Allan Hancock College has 3D printing in his sights, and executive leadership at the Santa Maria, Calif., college is interested in pursuing it. The in-plant would use it to produce models, art projects, packaging, custom manufacturing and more for students and non-profits.

"It's just another value-added service we could market to get more people in to purchase our conventional products," Rivera remarks. "We need to be on the crest of the wave of this technology and be proactive in assessing its viability in our workflow. Colleges with robust fine art, engineering and architecture programs would have the most success, I would imagine."

In Ames, Iowa, Printing & Copy Services at Iowa State University has already added a MakerBot Replicator 2 and is testing it out.

"We didn't want to be left behind," remarks Director Steve Weigel.

Other campus departments have added higher-end 3D printers, and Weigel feels the quality of his shop's printer pales by comparison, so the in-plant is not selling 3D printing right now but is using it for promotional purposes to get people into the in-plant. Though he feels the $2,500 his shop spent on the printer was well worth it for the learning experience, he advises other managers to invest more so they stand out from campus competition.

"If you can afford it, get a little higher-end model," he says.

Charging for 3D Printing

Figuring out what to charge for 3D printing has not been easy. Hadenfeldt looked at material cost and came up with a per ounce charge. He says most items cost well under $10.

Carlson went a different route and charges by the hour. The first hour is $25 (with half and quarter hours charged proportionately); the second hour is $15; and the third hour is just $5. Complex jobs can take three hours, he says, and he wanted to keep the cost manageable for students so they aren't scared away from using the 3D printer.

Hadenfeldt says his in-plant is recovering costs on its 3D printer, and at the current pace of work, he expects to pay for the printer (which cost about $2,200) in two or three years. But he stresses that the in-plant didn't get it to make money but to fulfill a need.

"There were departments that had these printers, but nothing for the general student or faculty-staff that wasn't associated with those departments," he says.

Quick Setup

To get the printer up and running, he hired an interior design student, Marissa Clow, to set it up and test it. He expected this to take a few days, but within two hours she had already printed a demo. She further tested it by printing school projects for herself and fellow students. Now that the service is live, she runs the printer for jobs and Hadenfeldt is learning the process.

At SDSU, startup was just as seamless. Technician James Williams set the machine up.

"I bet within 20 minutes he had a bracelet printed out," remarks Carlson. "We were flabbergasted. I think our shop shut down to go watch that thing."

Williams oversees the 3D printing operation, trains others, gives demonstrations and helps students get started printing their projects. Once they get the hang of it, students operate the printer themselves.

Both say getting a 3D printer was well worth the investment. To those who say that 3D printing isn't real printing and doesn't belong in a print shop, Hadenfeldt responds, "They call it 3D printing for a reason. It's the same thing. You're taking a file and creating something."

It's a great value-added service, he says, though he cautions other in-plants to make sure they are successfully handling their core work before taking this on.

Though the output produced by entry-level 3D printers can have some rough edges, Carlson says no one is complaining. Students are excited to hold something they designed in their hands. "The customer's thrilled with it," he says. 



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