They say it has the power to revolutionize manufacturing. To Kenny Sloan and his Mechanical Engineering Technology classmates, it’s known as ‘the impossible thing-making machine.’
Whatever the label, the $1-million 3D metal printer at NSCC Waterfront Campus – the first post-secondary institution in the country to purchase one – is impressive.
“We had 3D printers that use ceramic powder,” says Abid Ahmad, Academic Chair, Mechanical and Industrial Technology. “They are invaluable for visualizing engineering or product design, but that type of printer doesn’t lend itself to producing a final product that could go into a functional machine. This one does.”
That’s because this 3D printer can build an object layer-by-layer using any metal powder at all, from titanium and stainless steel to aluminum or cobalt-chrome. A powerful laser melts the powder together in a process that can last from a couple to several hours, depending on the geometry and complexity of the part. Abid says this offers considerable advantages over traditional forms of manufacturing.
“Typically, manufacturing is subtractive in nature – you put material into a lathe or milling machine and work away at it. Building layer by layer, there’s no waste, so it has obvious benefits in terms of sustainability and cost.”
Because you can build an entire assembly in one machine in a matter of hours, it also eliminates the long lead times and the supply chain typically involved in manufacturing complex components.
“This disruptive technology has tremendous implications for engineering design. It also has the potential to change the way we learn product design and how we approach engineering design issues.”
Kenny had an opportunity to use the printer for a confidential senior class project with one of the College’s technology partners. He says the equipment was vital to the project’s success.
“The geometry for the object we were building was too complex for any other machine to handle it. It took two tries, but once you work out the design and have everything set just right, it will make magic happen.”
Abid says the College is now talking to various technology and industry partners about the possibility of building components for use in defence, aerospace and medical applications. He also sees the 3D metal printer creating unprecedented business opportunities for students like Kenny.
“By continuing on this path of innovation and creativity, we will encourage our students to embrace technology and develop an entrepreneurial spirit. This can only enhance our economy as it will foster some graduates to start their own companies, hire staff and adopt new technologies to produce viable products. In that way, this printer is an investment in Nova Scotia’s future.”