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An Interview with Jim Zahniser, University of Maryland

More and more schools of various types are choosing to make the investment into 3D printing. While some are doing it printer by printer, others, like the Clark School of Engineering which is the focus of this interview, are choosing to go for it all by partnering with 3D printing giant MakerBot to design what are dubbed MakerBot Innovation Centers. We have talked to a few other schools as well such as SUNY New Paltz, Xavier University, Florida Polytechnic University, and UMass Amherst who have also made the commitment with great results. This is certainly a key trend we see further solidifying over the next 5-10 years. We connected with Mr. Jim Zahniser, Executive Director, Engineering Information Technology at the Clark School. The interview was conducted via email and the transcript is below.

1) What prompted you to look into becoming a MakerBot 3D Innovation Center? Had anyone among the staff and faculty had experience with other 3D printers or 3D design?
The University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering decided to make a strategic, systematic investment in additive manufacturing/3D printing during the Spring of 2014. We had some individual research groups doing some work with the technology both in Engineering and around campus. We got a committee together to determine what that investment would look like. We wanted to create a shared resource that would provide a provide access to the best equipment in the most economical means possible. We are targeting 3 key audiences: undergraduate students, entrepreneurial activities, and researchers. The Innovation Center is one part of that investment. The umbrella organization for managing all our additive manufacturing activities is called Terrapin Works.

In the summer of 2014, we ran a bake-off of most of the consumer 3D printers available at the time for incorporating additive manufacturing into our freshman engineering course. The results of this and how we integrated it into the course can be found in an American Society for Engineering Education paper. We ended up using 10 Makerbots in support of this one class. We were able to give students a great experience at the freshman level, but there was limited access after that course. We knew we needed something that would scale for the rest of Engineering and Campus as a whole. That is what prompted us to look at the Innovation center concept.

2) What types of reactions have you had across campus since the Innovation Center got up and running?
The reaction across campus has been very positive. There have been many research use cases, iterative designs, as well as small scale manufacturing requests. People get very excited when they first see the space and understand that they can use this, now.

3) What has been done to promote its existence and technology? Have you begun any cross-campus partnerships since its inception both on campus or out in the community?
We had a ribbon cutting ceremony and 3D expo to launch the center (watch video). There have been multiple tours every week since its launch. These are for both on campus groups and those from the surrounding communities. We are actively involved in the campus maker ecosystem.

We opened the center right before our campus wide open house. We had great deal of interest from the public during that open house.

4) Who all is able to take advantage of having this type of resource on campus? Is it limited to students taking courses or pursuing degrees in engineering or the sciences?
This is available to all students, faculty and staff on campus.

5) 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? Also, do you think the existence of Startup Shell will allow for the Innovation Center to have an even broader impact?
It will be really exciting to see how this technology will impact things like capstone design projects in the future. As freshman, our students are working with this technology. This will become a great tool in their toolbox that they will be able to readily use throughout their time on campus. Additive manufacturing can require a different way of looking at things and our students will have had a great exposure.

We also have a great echo system of machines beyond the Innovation center. The Innovation center is a gateway to accessing those other machines. Students can iterate on their part geometries and then when they need to print it in a more durable material they can utilize the Fortus, Objet, ProX200, or other machines.

The Innovation center is located next to the Startup Shell along with a rapid prototyping center. The Startup Shell is our student run technology incubator. It is a large co-working space where students can work on their early stage start-up. The co-location of these activities allow for rapid product iteration and innovation.

6) In as much as you can comment, how integral was the administration of the university in getting this done and getting it funded? Was any of this the result of a grant application?
The initial acquisition was funded with internal resources. Our goal is to be able recover the ongoing operational costs through a fee for service. For example, we are charging on campus people $.10/gram for printed parts through the Innovation center.

7) How have the first few weeks gone? What have been the biggest challenges presented and how have they been overcome or handled? What have been the biggest surprises, if any?
It has been busier than I thought we would be. We launched toward the end of the Spring semester so we expected a slow gradual ramp up but we immediately got a couple of large jobs. In a little over 2 months, we have run a little over 15,000 hours through the innovation center.

Going into this, I was a little worried about the reliability of the 5th generation replicator that are being used in the Innovation Center. We had some earlier versions of the printer (Summer 2014) and had a number of issues with the early generation smart extruders. I have been pleasantly surprised with the reliability of the current smart extruder.

8) What advice, if any, would you give to another dean, professor, or business who is interested in beginning an Innovation Center on their campus or a place of business?
This technology is becoming much more mainstream these days. It is not enough to go into design reviews with a 2D printed model on paper or even a 3D CAD model on the computer. People are expecting prototypes they can handle. Your students need to have experience with this set of tools.

There is also a certain “cool” factor. When we were setting up the printers last summer for our freshman engineering class, the labs we were setting them up in were also home to some summer camps of high school age students. These students were so excited about the technology that they would pick through our recycled material to ask if they could take failed prints.

We do something a little unique here where we use some of our best faculty to teach this project based freshman engineering course. When we introduced this program, we expected the students to be excited and they were. We didn’t expect the faculty to be as excited as they were. These are our best, busiest faculty with very active research programs, and they would be in the labs after hours using the 3D printers.

9) What are some of the long-term goals of the Clark School as it relates to both 3D printing and education in general?
We have been increasingly designing digitally for years through various CAD/CAM/CAE systems and digital fabrication is the next logical step. The technology has come along way but there are still advancements that are needed in the equipment, materials, software, and support systems. We think we can contribute on all those fronts. The Clark School has identified additive manufacturing as a strategic research theme moving forward.

10) What materials/filament are you printing with, and what are some of the products you have printed that you are most proud of these first few weeks?
Most of our work through the Innovation center has been with PLA. We do have Replicator 2Xs in the machine mix that allow us to use ABS and other material but we have been primarily working in PLA. We have done a number of runs for the e-NABLE organization http://enablingthefuture.org/ for their pediatric prosthetic devices