New Paltz Offers 3D Printing

Photo by Robin Weinstein.
Photo by Robin Weinstein.
Photo by Robin Weinstein.

For the first time this semester, SUNY New Paltz is offering courses in the new Digital Design and Fabrication (DDF) Program, which teaches students the drafting software and technology used in creating objects with a 3D printer.

3D printing works much like a traditional printer, with a nozzle attached to a mechanical rail capable of two dimensional movement layering molten plastic material on a flat surface, similarly to ink on a page. The difference is continued layering of plastic — over several hours — that form a three dimensional object when the plastic cools. This technology allows for virtually any physical object to be replicated with the correct design.

“There is an idea out there that 3D printing is like the Star Trek replicator,” Paul Kassel, interim dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts said. “That is pure science fiction. This program is grounded in reality and intends to develop in a concrete way.”

As a result, former Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts Mary Hafeli and Dean of the School of Science and Engineering Daniel Freedman created the DDF Program as a collaborative interdisciplinary effort.

According to Kassel, 3D printing has been used in the Art Department for a few years, but last February the college received a $500,000 grant from Central Hudson Gas and Electric Corporation and small business investment fund Hudson River Ventures to  further develop a 3D fabrication program.

There are six classes in the program, divided throughout three semesters, Freedman said. Upon completion of the program, a certificate is awarded by the school proving the student has successfully learned the software and technology used in 3D fabrication. The program is available to both students and non-students looking to learn 3D digital design as artists, engineers and business entrepreneurs.

Freedman said that 3D printing has existed since the 1980s, but has only recently gained public attention because of multiple patent expiration on the technology. He went on to say that because of this, 3D printers have become cheaper, leading to a growing consumer market. Freedman also said that personal computers have since advanced to meet the technological standards needed for 3D design and printing.

Now, anyone looking to experiment with 3D printing has the capabilities to do so at an investors price, Freedman said.

“It’s really transformational,” Freedman said. “It gives you a lot more freedom to design and fabricate something that would have been very difficult to make using traditional technology, if not impossible.”

Kassel agreed.

“An artist can imagine things now that would be impossible to fabricate through current means that 3D printing now allows you to make. It’s unbelievable,” Kassel said.

According to Freedman and Kassel, this technology has created significant potential for innovation in both science and art, as well as many collaborative possibilities between the departments and said that it’s a “a program of discovery.”

“In many ways a scientist is as much an artist as an artist is a scientist,” Kassel said. “Arts can’t exist without science and vice-versa.”

Freedman said he remembers when he came to this realization a few years ago at a high school career fair. He said that in talking with students, he found that many of them were in between art and design and engineering as their career paths.

“Society likes to draw a line between the sciences and art,” Freedman said. “But in reality that line is very blurred. Here at New Paltz we want to take advantage of students who don’t see those boundaries and facilitate that kind of thinking.”

Arthur Hash, one of the instructors of the DDF program and primary operator of the Digi-Fab Lab, said he plans to do just that.

“We’re creating creative problem solvers by combining engineers and artists,” Hash said. “We have a lot to gain from this partnership. In a way we are making über students who will be sought out by companies to help with manufacturing and design.” Hash said.

Hash holds an MFA in Metalsmithing and Jewelry, and has been working with 3D printing since 2005, both in the professional field and his own personal artwork.

He said that since the program debuted, departments outside of fine arts and engineering have approached him proposing projects using the 3D printer.

“As far as we can tell, it really makes us unique,” Freedman said. “There are a lot of other colleges and universities that are using 3D printing in one way or another, but what New Paltz has done that’s different with the collaboration between the School of Fine and Performing Arts and the School of Engineering, is we’ve made it close to a school wide effort.”

Freedman said that with this program, interdisciplinary collaboration will hopefully go further to include education, expressing a desire to work 3D printing into the curriculum of local high schools and community colleges.

“We’re essentially going to run a 3D printing business; working with companies, artists and industries in the Hudson Valley to promote 3D printing and its uses,” Freedman said. “We want New Paltz to become a place where they can learn that.”

According to Freedman and Kassel, New York state is ahead of Silicon Valley, the computer science and technology hub region based in southern California, in utilization and advancements in 3D printing. New York City houses many startup 3D printing operations, many of whom are artists looking for new possibilities in design.

With the DDF program, the deans said they  hope to attract the same level of prosperity to the Hudson Valley.

However, as with most developing technological innovations, the ethics involved in how 3D printing is used is a concern. 3D printing made news headlines in May when a story in Vice showed the first fully functional 3D printed handgun, whose design files were made available free, online, to be printed by anyone with the means to do so. The deans said that they are aware of this and believe it to be the responsibility of the school to educate students on the ethical dilemmas that arise with the capabilities 3D printing presents, going so far as to include a class on ethical production within the DDF program.

“We feel that it is necessary to provide an ethical dimension to this kind of manufacturing,” Kassel said. “There are consequences to any change in manufacturing, and students [in the program] need to think about that.”

The deans also addressed the legal ramifications of 3D printing.

“3D printing is going to do for patents what file sharing did for copyright,” Freedman said. “It’s interesting because I haven’t seen a lot of discussion on that yet.”

Freedman said he predicts that at the rate 3D printing are advancing, we can expect to see 3D printers in homes, schools and small businesses in the next 10 to 15 years.

Already, 3D printing can be used to “print” entire homes using cement with industrial sized printers, Kassel said. Metal parts for airplanes, prototypes for various tools and machinery were among other examples of 3D printing’s current capabilities Kassel listed. He also said that 3D printing had been used by artists to create sculptures made entirely of chocolate.

Hash recalled an instance where 3D printing was used to recreate the beak of a wounded eagle.

“The possibilities for production are endless,” Hash said. “It will be the responsibility of the users [of this technology] to determine where it goes in the future.”

According to Kassel, the potential for innovations in the field of bioscience using 3D printing is extraordinary. In the medical field, dental and knee repairs could be made quicker and cheaper for patients in need of physical replacements. The deans also said that in theory, food may one day be able to be “printed” with the correct understanding of its chemical structure.

The college’s early adoption of  3D printing and the creation of the DDF program hopes to put New Paltz on the forefront of experimentation and discovery with this “game-changing” technology, the deans said. Both departments expressed excitement about the future of the collaborative operation of the program.

“Science, technology, engineering and math–S.T.E.M. Add in art and you get STEAM,” Kassel said. “That’s what we have. We got a head of steam going here.”

Anthony DeRosa