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Students learning to change the world with 3D printing

3D printer

The 3D printer in the College of Business 3D lab.

Printing prosthetic limbs, musical instruments, even cars – that’s just naming a few of the ways 3D printing is changing the world. College of Business (COB) students are on the cutting edge of this new technology.

The ways 3D printing can be used are limitless, and it’s changing how businesses operate, said Associate Professor of Accounting Matthew Nelson. “3D printing creates the benefit of customization and gives businesses a competitive edge,” he said.

Students are learning how to think differently and how 3D printing makes good business sense. For example, hardware stores will eventually offer 3D printing to tailor customer needs. “One of my students created and printed a customized towel rack for his bathroom,” said Nelson. “The typical towel racks at the hardware store didn’t fit within the space on the wall – one side needed to be smaller than the other. So he printed his own,” Nelson said.

The students are learning how to create the designs they want to print with special software, and then how to actually print the items as a prototype. “Students have to prepare and review the software code associated with each item they create – which includes the dimensions of all sides of the object and helps determine the density,” said Nelson. “If the object works out, the students could potentially take it to the next level of engineering.”

Alex Donnelly, a senior majoring in business information systems, noted he has a friend who started his own 3D jewelry printing business. “He has a printer that prints with metals and he can design the pieces himself.” Most 3D printers use various types of plastics to print, but there are many other materials as well such as fabric, precious metals, wax, and steel.

Teaching students how to use 3D printers gives them an advantage when moving into the workforce after college. “Companies are going to need 3D managers, 3D development teams and 3D designers,” said Nelson.  “COB students will be able to fill these roles with the hands-on experience they are getting in the COB 3D lab.”

Another long-term advantage is keeping jobs at home. “A lot of manufacturing expertise that has been overseas can now be done here, because 3D printing will cut significant costs,” Nelson noted. “And our business students can be the ones getting these jobs.”

The idea of the 3D lab was integrated across multiple courses in the College of Business. “Interim Dean Gerry McKean was instrumental in leading and embracing the role of this technology from a business school perspective,” said Nelson.  “His support and leadership has made 3D printing possible at Illinois State.”