Penn State’s Maker Commons allows Penn State faculty and students in their free access to 3D printing technology. Walter Bain’s works as a maker-in-residence at the commons. This fall, he and the rest of the team at Maker Commons have been getting the University up to speed with upgraded 3D printing technology that has streamlined the printing process and expanded access to this unique teaching and learning tool.

“The original 3D printers used to launch Maker Commons had reached the end of their life cycle, so it was time to reevaluate the market in order to offer the best possible 3D printing experience to our faculty and students,” said Ryan Wetzel, manager of creative learning initiatives with Penn State’s Teaching and Learning with Technology.

In spring of 2019, Penn State installed new 3D printers that improved the user experience in several ways, according to Wetzel. “The new printers produce better quality prints at a faster rate than the previous ones, and they’re less prone to jamming or mechanical errors. That leads to fewer failed prints and delivers a faster turnaround from the print’s submission to when it’s ready to be picked up,” he said.

Pattee Library is home to Maker Commons and Penn State's 3D printing efforts. IMAGE: PENN STATE

Along with the upgraded hardware, a significant software improvement with the new printers makes working with the system simpler. 

“Students can access a cloud slicer from their internet browser,” said Wetzel. “The slicer is a tool used to prepare their 3D model for printing on our specific printers. Previously, slicing required specialized software that students either downloaded and installed on their personal computer or visited a computer lab to use.”

During the upcoming academic year, the new 3D printing systems and staff at Maker Commons will support approximately 7,000 combined prints submitted between University Park and Commonwealth Campuses. That capacity, more user-friendly hardware, and software, and the Interlibrary Loan Services make it possible to deliver completed prints to any University campus, make it easier than ever for faculty and students to utilize Penn State’s 3D printing technology.

Keith Ressler, a Penn State alumnus and research and development engineer with Penn State’s Applied Research Lab, taught a section of the electrical engineering senior design project and utilized Maker Commons’ new 3D printing system. Although his professional background gave him knowledge of 3D printing, this was the first time he incorporated it into students’ coursework. 

“The support from Maker Commons staff provided a valuable lift to the ability to integrate 3D printed parts into the class and projects,” he said. “Some instruction on 3D printing basics gave us the needed understanding of the tools, file types, costs and more.”

Another Penn State alumnus, Christina Galbiati, teaches an introductory general education course yet she shares Ressler’s goals of preparing her students with critical-thinking and 21st-century technology skills. She and her students also get to utilize Maker Commons’ state-of-the-art 3D printers.

“Instructors like myself who don’t have 3D printing on-site can easily implement a 3D project,” she said. “Maker Commons’ resources are easy to use, and the delivery of models via the interlibrary system is a practical method that accommodates students’ schedules.” A mix of technical and personnel resources allows Galbiati to incorporate 3D printing as an accompaniment to her Adobe Illustrator project in her introduction to graphic design course. 

The differences in Ressler’s and Galbiati’s cases ultimately help to illustrate 3D printing‘s potential to impact education positively. They both understand how working with 3D printers will help students in their professional lives, regardless of their discipline.

“3D printing really helps develop soft skills like critical-thinking and problem-solving through print design, rapidly fabricating the print, testing it, and iterating as necessary to meet your needs,” said Ressler. “An unstated benefit is the ability to bring something to a team that isn’t yet the norm for the cycle of development. For example, you can design a part one day, have it in your hand the next, and never have to engage purchasing or a supply base.”


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