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An Interview with Tom Hull, Florida Polytechnic University

One of the latest trends we have seen in 3D printing is the introduction of 3D printing spaces on college campuses. More specifically, more and more campuses interested in 3D printing have opted for the building/installation of MakerBot Innovation Centers, a customizable 3D printing space. We recently learned of a school in Florida, Florida Polytechnic University that jumped on this almost a year ago. Florida Polytechnic is located in Lakeland, Florida and is dedicated to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education. The fact that the school which founded within just the last few years—the university came into being April 12, 2012—makes this investment all the more incredible. To learn more about their decision and what having one means to their campus we reached out and were granted an interview with Tom Hull, CIO of the university. The interview was conducted via email, and the transcript is here 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?
Florida Polytechnic University has a technology-rich campus and a mission to educate 21st century learners through applied learning and research. With a directive from our Board of Trustees to be innovative and take learning beyond the classroom, it made sense for Florida Poly to distinguish itself among the state universities of Florida by developing our Rapid Application Development (RAD) Makerspace, which is our 3D printing lab.

The RAD Makerspace started operations shortly after the University opened in fall 2014-15 for its inaugural academic year. In terms of experience, a couple of our faculty and technical staff had some experience in 3D printing and additive manufacturing in the development of new objects and products. But the size and scope of the RAD Makerspace has enabled us to bring in partners like MakerBot, Stratasys, Autodesk and others.

2) What types of reactions have you had across campus since the Innovation Center got up and running?
The RAD Makerspace has had a big impact and is quite popular with students and the public. It is an interdisciplinary environment with 3D printing hardware, digital object scanners, AutoCAD software and RAD technology for software development. The lab facilitates core engineering, computer engineering and computer science fields of study and advanced prototyping and adaptive manufacturing technology and techniques.

In fact, the RAD Makerspace is a favorite stop for prospective students and families touring the Innovation, Science & Technology Building, which is the ultra-modern campus building where the lab is located. The RAD Makerspace consistently attracts interest from students, parents, community members and some entrepreneurs.

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?
The RAD Makerspace has attracted a lot of media coverage, and it has become a popular destination for prospective students and their families on campus tours. Recently, a young inventor in the community used the lab to prototype a science fair project, which now has a provisional patent. We’re always looking for more ways to use our innovation lab and engage industry.

4) Who all is able to take advantage of having this type of resource on campus? Is it limited to students taking courses in specific academic disciplines?
More than 285 Florida Poly engineering students have done projects that involve using the lab and 3D printers to design and create products. Several students have had experience with 3D software; now with the scanning and printing resources, they can create objects. There have been another 50 or so students who have created objects on their own. We teach them how to use the technology, and they run with it. It fits into several courses in our curriculum, and some of our senior faculty have told me that their students could not have completed their design coursework without the lab.

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?
Yes, there is a definite edge and resume builder when students are able to strengthen their knowledge and skills using this applied technology. Students gain valuable experience with this technology that is hands-on, using our methodology of imagine, design, prototype and test in a laboratory setting. We have had students say that they have talked with students and faculty at other schools that have some 3D printers around campus but not an innovative lab with support and guidance integrated into the curriculum. It has made a difference.

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 University leadership supports a technology-rich learning environment that includes cutting-edge IT equipment and software. The idea for the lab and the 3D printers was studied and discussed at several committee meetings prior to development and implementation of the RAD Makerspace. The faculty also saw this as an opportunity to do something special.

7) Has this first year met your expectations thus far? What have been the biggest challenges presented and how have they been overcome or handled? What have been the biggest surprises, if any?
Yes, the first year has been great. We are now in phase two and have more vectors that we want to perform than we have people to actually do them! We have to overcome the challenge of supporting the technology and running the lab all while starting the University from scratch. We have engaged many student workers to help and also gave them the experience of supporting a service business.

8) What advice, if any, would you give to another CEO/CIO/CTO, professor, or business who is interested in beginning an Innovation Center on their campus or a place of business?
My advice is to analyze the use cases and get people involved in the process from the start. The great thing about our situation is that we can teach 30 students or more with each having access to the resources without queuing up their work. Some bigger, more complicated prints require the precision of the Z18s or Stratasys 1200es for prints that take more than 20 hours to complete.

9) What are some of the long-term goals of Florida Polytechnic as it relates to both 3D printing and education in general?
We have goals of more software partnerships and collaborations with industry, as well as outreach programs to K-12, other colleges and universities. We also plan to add more capabilities, since the industry is changing on a quarterly basis.

10) What materials/filament are you printing with, and what are some examples of the products you have printed that you are most proud of to this point?
We are excited that we will be adding several more materials to our capabilities, such as metallic composites, bronze, iron, wood-like maple filament and limestone for several applications. We use ABS, PLA, PLE, etc. at this time.