Fairfield University's School of Engineering awarded National Science Foundation grant for unique 3-D Printer

Think of a printer that takes engineering plans and an artist's sketch of an imagined sculpture and then makes them into three-dimensional renderings. Fairfield University's School of Engineering plans to purchase such a 3-D printer with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). It's a learning tool that will benefit Fairfield's undergraduate and graduate students across all disciplines of study and encourage them to think outside the box.

Jerry Sergent, Ph. D., chairman of the electrical engineering program, will receive an NSF grant worth nearly $78,000 to obtain an Objet Geometries's Eden250 3-Dimensional printing system, which can produce high resolution, three-dimensional models of designs. He said, "It will print solid objects one thin layer at a time, so you can build just about everything you can draw or imagine. Our students can now actually complete their designs for an accurate physical 3-D representation of their ideas."

The 3-D printer is not a readily available piece of equipment on college campuses, so the skills Fairfield students will gain from using it are unique. It also will be a prized piece of technology for area companies - including Sikorsky, Northrop Grumman, and ASML - to use, Dr. Sergent said.

The printer takes designs that are put into a computer program, and then dispenses resin-based material to create a 3-D prototype. In effect, it ‘prints' solid objects, such as a prototype of an automotive part or an architect's house plans. Fairfield graduates will likely find the knowledge they gain from using the printer of great value because it is widely used by industries. Companies that make consumer products, electronics, medical devices and fashion accessories, along with engineering firms, are using rapid prototyping by means of a 3-D printer. This instrument will benefit both Fairfield's undergraduates and graduate students across all disciplines of study, including most notably engineering, physics, chemistry and biology. Dr. Sergent said, "We welcome students of other disciplines to use it."

The instrument has many applications, from mechanical engineering to the manufacturing industries. It can make 3-D renderings of gears to help mechanical engineers see how they fit together, for example. It can build prototypes of machines for manufacturing engineers and help electrical engineers understand electrical circuits.

Dr. Sergent plans to use the printer with research entitled, "MRI: Development of Improved Methods for Packaging Electronic Circuits," a project to learn how to isolate heat in devices with electronic circuits, such as a motor drive in a power drill or automotive circuit in a car's cooling fan. With the help of students, he will study how heat flows in a system and how to remove it. This is key to understand because for every rise in temperature of ten degrees Celsius in an electrical system, the life of a product is cut in half. "Thermal management viability is vital," said Dr. Sergent.

The goal is to develop packaging to guide the heat flow, reducing the temperature in an electrical system. Engineers are hampered in seeing the flow of heat in electrical systems, but a 3-D printer can help them see those connections and prototype suitable packaging. Dr. Sergent explained, "We hope to devise a low-cost package for power devices with improved thermal characteristics for better heat flow." Many commonly used products, such as cars and household appliances, will benefit from the research, both in performance and cost.

Dr. Sergent said that Susan LaFrance, director of government grants at the University, was extremely helpful to him and played a key role in winning the grant.

The printer also will serve as an opportunity to help area corporations who do not have 3-D printers on hand to customize their designs into prototypes, opening the door to more opportunities for Fairfield students to collaborate with those companies. Some don't have the printers because they only need them on an intermittent basis. Dr. Sergent said, "But when companies need it, they need it badly."

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on July 24, 2008

Vol. 41, No. 16