LAKELAND, Fla. — When students propose, design and create projects at Florida Polytechnic University, they will have a state-of-the-art, 3-D printing lab available to help them along.
It's a long way from the days of poster boards and a box of colored markers.
Florida Poly President Randy Avent said the university is extremely well-suited to host the lab.
"We are on a mission to address real-world challenges, and that's what this is about," he said.
"People might think, well, it looks like a lot of fun, but what does it have to do with higher education?
"And it encompasses the entire Florida Poly, STEM-based package."
Classes began at Florida Poly Aug. 25. The university is focusing on courses related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). For many of those courses, a 3-D printing laboratory will serve as a creation-booster.
Tom Hull, vice president and chief information officer, said the setup was made possible via a partnership with MakerBot, a subsidiary of Stratasys Ltd.
Partnering with the company that makes the equipment and software enabled the school to obtain the equipment for about $277,000, Hull said. The next-generation software releases will be provided, along with training and ongoing consulting, he said.
The Rapid Application Development Makerspace Lab at Florida Polytechnic University has more than 60 3-D printers and 3-D digitized scanners, making it a large-capacity innovation center.
"It will be a place where students, faculty, partners and community members can work to apply creativity and innovation of adaptive manufacturing and hybrid-maker opportunities," Hull said.
"Florida Poly seeks to encourage entrepreneurism and creativity — along with providing a resource to help build relationships with industry partners."
Florida Poly is not the only school looking toward the future.
Isaac Budmen, co-author of "The Book on 3D Printing," explained the concept recently at Polk State College's Clear Springs Advanced Technology Center.
"Chances are, if you can think it, you can print it," he said.
Budmen, who is currently working as an artist with the Digital Media Lab at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, held two workshops on 3-D printers with Polk State College students, faculty and artists during his visit. The talk discussed the future of 3-D printing.
Polk State has 3-D printers.
Students from many lines of study will be able to incorporate the 3-D lab into studies, Florida Poly's Hull said.
"We are using the RAD Makerspace for computer engineering, electrical engineering, computer science and information technology, and cybergaming in gaming and simulation. In the works is advanced technology in robotics."
Avent, an engineer with the ability to explain the field to nongeeks, explained the scanners are used to capture shapes and sizes of actual objects — a credit card, a deck of cards or a piece of jewelry could be scanned. Then the printer is used to create a model-sized version of the object out of filament.
"Let's say someone wants to build a new cool new part for a BMW," Avent said.
"What they could do here is draw a picture of it, hit a button and print it out."
A major cost-saver with this system is that prototypes can be adjusted and created repeatedly, right there in the lab, Avent said.
"What it does is it allows people to build prototypes very quickly and change them very quickly," he said.
"Whenever any of our faculty or students have a business idea, they can run and very easily draw things up and print out prototypes and play with it," he said.
Student Zach Boyd said he's psyched about the 3-D lab and looks forward to using it. The first week of school was enough to show him his choice of universities was a good one, he said.
"The first day was just the beginning, and by the end of today I now know for sure that this was a great decision," he said.
"So far I have taken all of my classes over these past two days, which include intro to engineering, analytical geometry and calculus 1, technical writing, ethics, chemistry and chem lab."
The 3-D printing ability can fit into a number of the courses, he said.
And while it's cool for students to be able to use the lab, Avent said it's not going to be just for them. "We are going to open it up to anyone that lives in the area, anyone that has a business, anyone outside of the Poly as well. We will work with them," he said.
Florida Poly's partnerships offer a unique opportunity to work with businesses, Hull said — and the lab is a fine example of cutting costs and helping a business at the same time, as well as boosting students' studies.
A self-study course will be offered online for those who are interested in using the equipment, Hull said.
Polk State College wants to create its own makerspaces on the campuses so that all students have access to this technology, said Osubi Craig, director of Polk State's Lake Wales Art Center. During his talk, Craig carried around a small, 3-D-printed red eagle that students had printed in 45 minutes at their earlier workshop with Budmen.
Polk State officials are still discussing the possibility of opening those spaces to businesses and community members as well, he said.
Avent said it's crucial for Florida Poly to be on top of this type of technology, which is destined to be part of major achievements in upcoming years. "We're not doing this because it's kind of cool and interesting," he said. "There's a real reason we're doing this.
"In our case, a big part of what we are doing here is educating students in new, emerging technologies that are going to drive the economy."
Information from: The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.), http://www.theledger.com