Heard Off the Street: Academia serves industry with a 6-ton printer

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Jerry Thiel sits at the helm of the largest 3-D printer in North America. The $1.5 million machine, made by North Huntingdon-based ExOne, efficiently prints sand molds that manufacturers rely on to cast metal parts.

Mr. Thiel is not an entrepreneur heading up an advanced manufacturing company. He is the director of the University of Northern Iowa's Metal Casting Center. The center trains students in the art of advanced manufacturing, conducts research and supports its operation by providing research and other services to private industry.

"We have this blend of what might be a commercial lab ... in a university setting where we're also training young engineers and young technicians," Mr. Thiel said.

The six-ton ExOne printer "was a natural extension of our service to the industry," he added. "It's what industry was asking for. It's what the industry needs to move forward."

The printer cost a little less than four years of compensation for the university's new president, former Shippensburg University president William Ruud.

At a time when many state legislatures are cutting back university funding, the Cedar Falls school (enrollment 12,150) convinced Iowa lawgivers to provide $1.2 million for the printer. Revenue from doing work for industry will provide the rest.

The legislature's willingness to provide most of the funding was based on the casting center's 25-year track record.

Started as an applied technology research center in 1989, it has survived on a mix of federal and state funding and a healthy dose of revenue from doing work for General Motors, Deere and other companies. Mr. Thiel expects the center will be able to more than cover the $250,000 to $300,000 annual cost of operating and maintaining the printer by performing contract work for companies eager to find new ways to make or use the sand molds.

The center's clients include ExOne. Mr. Thiel said the center has helped the Western Pennsylvania company with materials testing and product development. That helped Northern Iowa get what he joked was "the educational discount" on the printer.

Bob Wood -- who oversees ExOne's partnerships with schools, laboratories and companies -- said his company typically provides a discount to its education partners. The discount is based on a number of factors, including how long and involved the collaboration has been.

The University of Pittsburgh, Robert Morris University, Penn State University and other schools are using ExOne equipment, but none of them has a machine as powerful as the printer Northern Iowa bought, Mr. Wood said. Northern Iowa also has a laboratory-sized ExOne printer that it uses to make metal parts.

Many familiar with the concept of 3-D printing think of it as a way to efficiently design and produce customized parts, from simple plastic parts such as action figures all the way to complex metal parts that -- if made conventionally -- require a lot of cutting, bending and welding.

A digital image of the part is sliced into hundreds or thousands of layers the width of a human hair. Slice by slice, a printer methodically reproduces the image in the material of choice -- spitting out plastic, metal or some other material the way a conventional printer spits out ink. It also applies a liquid binder that holds the layers together, resulting in a physical version of the digital image.

Northern Iowa's printer does not make parts. It emits customized sands and binders into what's called a "build" box, where the sand is shaped into molds. The molds are like ice cube trays, except that instead of pouring in water to make ice cubes, molten metal is poured into molds to form pumps, valves, faucets and other industrial parts.

Printing the molds is more efficient than making them the conventional way, which involves putting a pattern of the part into a box, pouring sand over it, then letting the sand compact and harden around the pattern. Because using printers is faster, manufacturers can quickly develop and test molds for prototypes of new products. It also is easier to customize the molds, allowing manufacturers to meet the specialized demands of customers.

Mr. Thiel said the printer gives regional companies affordable access to the technology, allowing them to explore its potential with little or no risk.

The printer also is a valuable learning tool for the university's students and gives local manufacturers a place to train their workers, he said.

Northern Iowa was part of a consortium that recently won one of 15 grants from America Makes. The Youngstown, Ohio-based advanced manufacturing research group was the first of a network of such groups President Barack Obama wants to fund to promote manufacturing.

Teams led by Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University also won grants.

America Makes will provide $9 million for the projects, while the schools and companies on the winning teams will kick in another $10.3 million.

The Northern Iowa team, which includes ExOne and Youngstown State University, will research ways to accelerate use of 3-D printing and other advanced manufacturing technologies in the casting industry.

Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941.

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