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Printer brings students' ideas to life





Communication studies students at Fort Hays State University have been experimenting with three-dimentional printing to bring concepts to life.

Gordon Carlson, assistant professor of communication studies, is overseeing three students who are proving 3D printing is useful outside of science and technology fields.

"3D printing has a lot of potential," said John Ross, director of the Forsyth Library at FHSU. "Some 3D printers are able to print out car parts. There is some work being done with human tissue. What we're seeing is really the beginning, and I think the future is really rich."

Ross gives the example of a boy from Overland Park who was born without four fingers.

"He was getting into the grades where kids were making fun of him for not having full use of his hand," Ross said. "His 16-year-old friend went to the local library, downloaded a prosthetic hand and printed it out on a 3D printer."

The prosthetic hand uses robotic technology and strings throughout to allow the boy to flex his fingers.

Any object can be printed by drawing an image using computerized design software, downloading a readily available image online or scanning an image.

As opposed to ink, the printing cartridge is full of a plastic filament, which feeds into the print head. The print head is heated, and deposits the filament layer by layer on a platform. The object, which begins printing from the bottom, is created by a combination of the print head moving back and forth, and the platform rising and falling.

Substrate, a substance Carlson said at first looks like burnt sugar, is used to support objects that can't withstand their own weight.

"It holds up all the material that has no support of its own," Carlson said, "so it builds up substrate underneath."

Carlson instructed students to put the heaviest part of the object at the bottom when arranging the object in the computer for printing. Students are able to reposition the object digitally as it will appear in the printer.

"He's (Carlson's) big on visualizing communication concepts," said senior Lexi Copeland, a member of the communication studies team. "Basically we're using the system to take communication theories, and see how we can create them in this 3D environment."

The team is working specifically with the Pentad theory, a communication theory that uses five concepts to explain human mentality.

"It's really cool since we're coming from a completely different mind frame," Copeland said. "We're not in technology or science or anything like that, subjects which people usually assume the 3D technology would be more useful."

The visualization aids in giving students with various learning styles a complete approach to understanding the concept.

"When someone's trying to teach you something, the person might have the concept visualized in a different way than you visualize it," said junior Marcella McCluskey.

"With the 3D images, you can see how the other person is visualizing the concept, so it will make sense."

Once an object is designed in the computer, it can be uploaded online, and downloaded by anyone who has similar technology.

"There are so many free object files on the Internet," Copeland said.

"You can just import it. I don't know how to make a super detailed person figurine yet, so I imported the free object file."