UAF acquires the only 3D metal printer in the university system

Published: Nov. 17, 2022 at 9:12 AM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Achieving an operational status earlier this year, the Geophysical Institute houses the only 3D metal printer in the University of Alaska system.

As 3D printer have become more affordable, they have also become more common. Some people even have one in their own home. However, 3D metal printing technology is newer and much more expensive, According to Gregory Shipman, the machine shop manager at the Geophysical Institute, these systems often cost “half a million dollars.”

The University of Alaska Fairbanks purchased a 3D metal printer in 2020 but only began to use the tool in 2022. Since then, the machine shop in the Geophysical Institute has used the printer to create parts and tools that serve a range of uses and it has made a big difference for all who utilize the equipment. “It’s been really beneficial because it allows us to move to another level.” said Shipman. The new equipment allows the machine shop to design and build geometry that isn’t possible using the computer numeric control machines that are usually used to mold and make metal components.

Similar to a 3D printer that uses plastic, the printer utilized by the university allows workers to create items with little to no hands on labor. Their printer is able to make items out of certain types of steel or copper and can reach a maximum temperature of 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. The printing itself is made possible by a nylon filament that binds the metal together. But unlike a plastic printer, the metal printer doesn’t make a finished product. Once the item is printed, it must bake in a special oven that heats up to 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, where it is solidified. Both the printing and baking can each take nearly a day to complete. The final step involves washing the item in a solvent that removes the filament. Once all three steps are complete, the item is ready for use.

“We really don’t have to worry too much about labor because it runs on its own and it can in fact run 24 hours a day if we need it to,” said Shipman. This increases productivity and allows the staff in the machine shop to focus their efforts on other projects.

Due to the extreme environments that research is conducted in, the machine shop also has to pay attention to the behavior of the parts they make. Shipman said the 3D printer has been able to aid them in producing items that behave predictably in those extremes. “We’ve got parts that have gone up in space, we’ve got parts that have gone down in the ocean, we’ve got parts that are sitting on mountain tops,” said Shipman.

The whole system cost the university $139,000 and since the printer’s products have already been to space the next frontier for the technology is anybody’s guess.