Students use 3-D printer technology to create flashlights Published Sept. 7, 2007 By Amanda Creel 78 ABW/PA Robins Air Force Base, Ga. -- When most of us think about printers we envision a simple machine spitting out paper. But with today's technology, printers can do a lot more than print paper, as a group of 20 eighth graders from Northside Middle School's gifted program discovered during a pilot program at STARBASE Robins. The printing world for these students expanded to include the opportunity to manufacture their own mini-flashlights as part of the five-week pilot program using a Dimension Elite 3-D printer. The printer was provided to the program by the Department of Defense. "We are printing them (our flashlights) out of a $30,000 printer and that's really cool," said Ashley Mann, 13. "When we first saw it we were amazed at how fast it can work and how detailed it can be." Three-dimensional printing is a method of converting a virtual 3-D model into a physical object. The machine prints successive layers of plastic melted at high temperatures to fabricate a 3-D object. Wesley Fondal, director of STARBASE Robins, said the students involved in the pilot program were getting a rare experience by having access to the AutoCad program for a manufacturing project and use of the coveted printer. "They are getting access to a 3-D printer and there are technical colleges who are pining over these printers," Mr. Fondal said. STARBASE Robins was one of 20 STARBASE programs chosen to test the program before implementing it at all 53 STARBASE locations, said Ernie Gonzales, from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. He added the printer and Parametric technology Corporation manufacturing program is being piloted by the STARBASE program because of the program's desire to become "a true-stem program." "They have been learning about designing and are being exposed to design, so we just wanted to take the next step making it possible for them to manufacture their design," Mr. Gonzales said. He said it is important for students to be able to see their design become a tangible object. Martha Lockhart, an administrative assistant with STARBASE Robins, said the best part of the program is "they can take something they personally designed on the computer and they can hold it. That brings it all home." The pilot program allowed each student to create a keychain-sized flashlight in the shape of a rocket. The large printer uses melted plastic rather than traditional ink cartridges to create actual product parts such as the top, bottom and button of a flashlight. "I like the way we get to build something on our own and we get to do all this cool stuff on the computer," said Amanda Selby, 13. The printer, a large metal box standing much taller than many of the eighth graders using it, can reach temperatures of 600 degrees inside while manufacturing the students designs. Lyndon Meadows, 13, said he likes that STARBASE is giving them the opportunity to build on the skills they learned with earlier projects. "When we were fifth graders they helped us to build our rockets and this time we are actually doing it ourselves and they are guiding us through the process," he said. Casey Dent, one of the programs instructors, said he feels it is important to add the manufacturing program to the curriculum because it will encourage students to get more involved in science and math fields in the future. "It will motivate them and let them know they can do engineering stuff at a young age and then when they get up in those engineering classes they will know they can do it," he said. Mr. Dent wasn't the only one convinced the manufacturing program could help continue to bring local talent into the manufacturing and engineering program here at Robins and beyond. Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Fondal agree providing the students with hands-on experience helps encourage more students to pursue careers here at Robins. "We are not only looking for those who will research and develop. We also need those who will maintain those systems," Mr. Gonzales said. The eighth graders not only had the opportunity to work with cutting-edge technology, which would be the envy of many college students, the group also had the chance to meet U.S. Representative Jim Marshall and hear his thoughts on why it is important to consider engineering and other mathematical and scientific fields when choosing careers paths. Rep. Marshall said, "You guys are incredibly lucky to be able to have a program like this."