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An Interview with Dr. Malcolm Cooke, Case Western Reserve University

The use of 3D printing technology in higher education continues to amaze us. It seems like almost each week new products or techniques are being developed by college and universities for a variety of uses. We recently read about Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and their think[box] facility), which has incorporated 3D printing into a larger concept of innovation, research, and product development. Malcolm Cooke, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Case Western Reserve University serves as the executive director of think[box]. We recently had the opportunity to speak with him to find out more about think[box] and everything they are doing for the campus and community at large. The interview was conducted via email and the transcript is below.

1) Can you provide a brief history of think[box]? How did you come up with the idea for this and what prompted you to start this space?
We started the think[box] journey in 2008-09, asking the question, “How can we create a physical and mental space that encourages cross-disciplinary engagement, innovative thinking, making and building, and, if appropriate, product development and company creation?” Simply, we wanted to create an ecosystem to support and promote innovation and entrepreneurship.

This vision was moved toward reality through the efforts of a group of faculty responding to the Provost Office’s call for interdisciplinary ideas based on thematic areas that represented university strengths. A consultant interviewed stakeholders throughout campus to identify synergistic focal points for think[box] efforts. The key was to think about collaborative activities in new disciplinary areas that had yet to come together. From the start, that vision was not limited to CWRU students or faculty alone, but rather a broader community stakeholder group that included other academic (including K-12), research and business institutions and leaders that could contribute.

2) Who are the people involved and what are their academic backgrounds?
A core group of engineering faculty and alumni champions had a vision to break down boundaries on and off campus and to celebrate a culture of creating, making and innovating within a region that has making and manufacturing as part of its DNA. Key faculty and two particularly dedicated alumni added legitimacy to the effort—especially because the faculty had the pulse of the students, which helped guide the vision.

Encouraging active involvement of alumni who were also passionate about this topic was key in the project’s development. Tapping individuals early to join in the development of the idea allows for a shared sense of commitment and buy-in. We were able to kick-start fundraising efforts more quickly because of this early involvement as well as tap into ideas that would not have been explored if additional great minds were not around the table. This included the identification of our permanent building?an idea from an alum who knew much about the history and physical layout of the campus infrastructure.

To introduce an idea that will impact the entire university community and beyond not only requires steep commitment from faculty, but also understanding and commitment from the administrative ecosystem of any university. From the President, Provost, Development Office to Corporate Relations, Foundation Relations, Media Relations, Government Relations, and Student Life, including the internal administrative ecosystem is critical.

3) It says on your website that you are in the process of building a new facility which will be one of the largest innovation centers in the world. Is this the same thing as a MakerBot Innovation Center?

Firstly, think[box] is far more than a “maker Space,” offering 3-D printing and other digital fabrication tools. Think[box] provides and supports a complete innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem for our community. Think[box] will begin moving into the Richey Mixon Building, a 50,000-square-foot, seven-floor facility in mid-July/August this year and be ready to open for business at the start of the fall semester. It will provide a distinct, on-campus environment where hands-on education, design and development and product commercialization can all take place, and where these activities can interact and cross-fertilize. More than a meeting place or world-class fabrication laboratory, it is home to educators, advisors, mentors and facilitators who can assist students and faculty into becoming tomorrow’s entrepreneurs and technology leaders.

Think[box] is a catalyst that is changing the social culture of Case Western Reserve and Northeast Ohio by encouraging cross-department and cross-institution collaborative endeavors that push creativity and innovation to their limits. By providing a place where members of the engineering, design, arts, science, medical and business communities can interact, we hope to overcome the intellectual and physical boundaries that often prevent the spread of ideas and limit cross-discipline innovation.

4) How many total units will you have when it is complete? What types (e.g. SLS, FFF/FDM, etc.) of 3-D printing will be available to your students?
Think[box] is not assessed by how many 3-D printers it has. In fact, 3-D printing is a very small but important percentage of the manufacturing services and related equipment to be found in think[box]. It certainly has an important role to play as our users develop their ideas and designs, and they certainly help our users to visualize, communicate and analyze their designs.

However, to answer the question, all our current printers use Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology. Our production printers are Stratasys Fortus 250 and 400 machines, and we print in ABS, Polycarbonate, Nylon 12, and Ultem. We also have a couple of MakerBots that print in PLA and provide our users a first step in getting comfortable with the advantages and limitations of the technology. As we transition to our new building, we plan on purchasing a number of additional production printers to enable us to manufacture parts and assemblies in multi-colors and with a range of custom material properties.

5) What types of reactions have you had across campus since the temporary think[box] space got up and running?
Excitement—amazed that such a fantastic innovation and maker resource is freely available to all students and the wider community. Typical quotes from users: “Can‘t wait to use it.”;“How do I become a teaching assistant and work in think[box].”; “This is so cool.”

6) In the slide deck available on your website, it indicated that think[box] played a role in the decision of just over a third of your new students in choosing CWRU. Do you believe that number will continue to go up for this next year?
The short answer is yes; to give an actual future percentage increase is difficult. We give many hundreds and possibly thousands of tours of think[box] each year, and prospective students and their families visiting the university are included in those tours. We have anecdotal evidence from parents of admitted students that think[box] factored heavily in their son’s or daughter’s decision to choose Case Western Reserve. This is in addition to positive comments from the students themselves.

7) What impact do you think it has had on the education of your students? Does it give your students a competitive edge over those from other schools?
Think[box] has, and continues to have a huge impact on our students’ academic experience. The projects that students work on in think[box] fall under a number of categories that include; academic courses, research, entrepreneurship and personal. Regardless of the category of project, think[box] provides the infrastructure for our users to realize their dreams and ideas and turn those ideas into real tangible products. For some who take advantage of the think[box] innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystem, it will become the nexus of a start-up company.

8) What advice, if any, would you give to other professors/administrators who may be interested in beginning this type of endeavor on their campus?
Since think[box] has been open for business in its temporary location, we have given many hundreds of tours to groups and individuals from universities, colleges and schools, both nationally and internationally. The main objective for their visit is to “see and experience” think[box]. They ask us a myriad of questions, usually focused on how we got started, tips on designing and setting up the space and how we manage and run a community wide free and open-access facility. This led us to develop and publish our “How to think[box] Playbook” which anyone can download from our website ( Additionally, we have consulted with over a hundred institutions on exactly this topic.

9) What are some of the long-term goals of the think[box] at CWRU as it relates to both 3-D printing and education in general?
Our medium and long-term goals extend far beyond wondering what the next 3-D printer we should buy. Think[box] is a catalyst for academic change on our campus and provides an economic engine for our entrepreneurial community. Think[box] provides faculty across the campus with the opportunity to embed all the many facets of innovation, design, manufacture and product development into their curriculum. The expectation is that activities supported by think[box] and its ecosystem will become integrated into the curriculum of many of our degree programs. In addition, think[box] will develop and offer a variety of workshops, seminars and pop-up courses on topics that could range from using a laser cutter, a 3-D printer, how to protect one?s intellectual property, and how to obtain start-up funding.

10) What are some of the products you have printed that you are most proud of? Has it incubated any current businesses/start-ups?
We are very proud to report that a number of student start-ups have used think[box] at some stage in their product development, and these start-ups have gone on to raise over $2.5 million in funding from a variety of sources. Details of these projects can be found on our website (, under the “Projects” link. 3-D-printed parts range from a new Yo-Yo design, transmission housing for the CWRU Mini-Baja car, to an anatomically correct model of a heart that includes all the internal valve structures, and a full-sized human skull segmented puzzle for an interactive display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in Cleveland, Ohio. Our website highlights other projects that include 3-D printed parts as well. We typically print many hundreds of parts per month for our users.


About Dr. Cooke

Malcolm Cooke has over twenty years of teaching experience in the areas of design, manufacturing and rapid prototyping. He received his Bachelor of Engineering (B. Eng.) degree from Coventry University, his Master of Science (M. Sc.) from Warwick Universtiy—both located in the United Kingdom —and his Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. Previously responsible for the development of on-campus manufacturing laboratories, computer-aided-design studios and innovative engineering design and manufacturing curriculum, Dr. Cooke now serves as the executive director for think[box]. His research interests include integrating advanced design and rapid prototyping technologies to address the challenges of engineering bone tissue.