Our 3D printer has generated a lot of interest in school and around on social media where we’ve shared pictures of the amazing things we’ve made. So what is it, how does it work, and what are we doing with it?
Our story starts a couple of years ago when one of our year 10 students, bought himself a kit to build his own 3D printer. He did it, it worked, but the results were not that impressive. The device sat unloved at the back of the physics lab for a year before he returned to it, customised almost all of it, installed new software and got it going properly. It could print items up to 8cm3 and he made some amazing things which we then painted and marvelled at. But it was terribly slow, taking hours to print the smallest thing. He and fellow 6th former and A Level Physics student, put forward a proposal for the school to buy a new, more advanced machine. Their white paper outlined numerous great ideas on what the device could be used for as both a practical tool and a learning experience. But school budgets have to be spent on what we need to have and sadly not on what we’d like to have…
Now the story takes an interesting twist. 45 years ago, one of the doctors from the local Robin Hood’s Bay surgery retired. Richard Whitehead Rutter was born in Wakefield in 1909, graduating in medicine in 1933 from Leeds University. He set up the surgery at Robin Hoods Bay and in 1961 formed, with a team of colleagues, what is now the Whitby partnership surgeries. He was president of the Fylingdales horticultural society and their bowling club as well as chairman of the Whitby Rural District Council in addition to being a keen golfer. He was also an amateur astronomer. Years earlier he had acquired a Watson Century telescope from a retired sea captain. The brass telescope was made at the turn of the twentieth century, probably just prior to the First World War. It was massive – over two metres long, with a large wooden tripod and was very, very heavy.
Doctor Rutter’s son had been a student at Fyling Hall and it was perhaps for this reason he donated the telescope to Mrs White, daughter of the founder of the school and then principal, around the time of his retirement in 1975. That retirement was sadly short-lived as he died six months later, aged just 65. Mrs White passed the telescope on to the school and upon his arrival, a new teacher mounted it on its tripod and gazed through it to the stars. It was deemed too unwieldily (the tripod almost collapsed due to a crack in the wood), too heavy and large to set up permanently and after a valuation, proved too valuable to leave lying around. It was put back in its large wooden case and put safely away in the loft space above the labs in the Ramsdale building. That’s where I found it two years ago. We decided once again that it was not something we could use easily. It also was in need of a lot of restoration. Much as I would have loved to go through that process, it would be a costly diversion. So we decided to see who would be interested in buying it. Mike Dawson from the Whitby Astronomical Society came forward and it now resides in his home, undergoing a full restoration, stripping the layers of paint back to the original brass. Mike has said he’ll share the results with us when it’s back to its former glory.
Now we return to my students’ proposal. I was in possession of the proceeds from the sale of the telescope. The school had already had a more modern telescope donated to us recently so I felt it was appropriate to re-invest the money in a different device that would benefit the school in a new way, and I hope, in a way that Doctor Rutter would approve.
In February this year we took delivery of an Artillery X1 Sidewinder 3D printer: faster, quieter, safer and more powerful than the older kit. It’s capable of making any object up to 30cm3 – that’s big.
If you haven’t seen a 3D printer, think of it as a cross between a sewing machine and a cake icer. It uses a large spool of a plastic thread (called ‘filament’). The printer melts the filament and deposits it as tiny droplets on the glass printer bed where it cools instantly. In this regard, it is almost the same as a traditional inkjet printer except that it can build up layers upon layers of tiny dots, making up complex structures in three dimensions. ‘Plastic!’ I hear you say, we don’t want more of that! The plastic we use, called PMA, is made from plant cellulose, not oil as most plastics are. It’s biodegradable too and non-toxic. It gives off no harmful fumes. It’s not wasteful as we make only what we need, one thing at a time, unlike a production line which produces thousands of items. We can get our filament in a variety of colours too.
To print something we need a three dimensional drawing, usually referred to as a CAD model (Computer Aided Design). There are thousands of these available on the internet for free that people have uploaded, or you can design your own using the appropriate software.
So what are we making with it? So far we’ve done the thing that everyone does when they first get a 3D printer: make toys. You’ll see here pics of Daleks and things from Star Wars. We’ve also made some unusual curiosities like the Impossible Table and the spinning fidget puzzle. One of our goals is to make a fleet of historic space vehicles, probes, robots and rockets. So far we have a model of Voyager and the Space X Falcon rocket. The other use is to design and build items that are actually of use. We have loads of ideas for equipment that will benefit our science experiments, holding equipment in place or casings for circuitry. One of the most simple and yet most useful was a wall cable rack for our electronic leads.
With 3D printers now becoming consumer units, we are now at the place where colour inject printers were about twenty years ago – once the province of print shops and educational establishments, they are now found in almost every home. We predict the same is true of the 3D printers where they’ll be used to print new Lego bricks for your children or replacement parts for your washing machine or car. Perhaps these future machines will have a plastic grinder attached so you simple drop in your plastic milk bottles for the machine to re-use the plastic to turn it into something else right there in your home. In industry, larger machines than ours are already being used to print joints and body parts for surgery. Maybe some of us we will have a new hip or knee joint printed on such machines in the near future. The plastic can be change for metal infused carbon or even concrete. Such large machines are used in disaster hit countries to quickly print refugee housing. In the next decade, similar machines will be shipped as parts to the Moon and Mars, assembled by robots and using the alien soil as their raw material, build strange igloos for human travellers to begin colonies on these other worlds. The future landscape of a human settlement on Mars may not resemble the glass domes of science fiction but a city looking more like giant termite nests that appear to have grown out of the alien soil, printed in exactly the same was as ours in our lab is operating today.
Thanks to the generous donation from Doctor Rutter all those years ago and the persistence and ingenuity of my students, we now have a modern design and technology workshop installed in the Physics lab which will in time give a massive benefit to our classes and our students offering new skills as well as a valuable glimpse into the future.