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RCCC students bring ideas to life using 3-D printer

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At Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, students use industry-leading technology, such as 3-D printers, to gain a competitive edge in job market.

3-D printers work like inkjet printers. But instead of depositing ink, they use an array of materials including metal, fabric and rubber.

Students in the advanced manufacturing and engineering technology programs use the campus’ printer.

“You can make virtually anything with this machine,” said Hasan Naima, RCCC’s dean of engineering and business technologies. “But the one thing we care about is teaching our students a skill, so when they leave and start a job, they can start right away and they don’t need any more training. We want to make them skill-ready, and part of that is working with technology like this.”

The college’s 3-D printer meets current manufacturing standards and has become a necessity, said Naima.

“Without it, something would be missing from their education,” he said.

The inception of 3-D printing can be traced back to 1976, when the inkjet printer was invented, according to In 1984, Charles Hull, the co-founder of 3-D Systems, invented stereolithography, which is a printing process that creates a tangible object by using digital data.

In the decades since, the printers have spawned prosthetics, an environmentally-friendly prototype car with a 3-D printed body, a robotic airplane, jewelry and even a self-replicating printer that prints the majority of its own components.

George Barringer, the program chair for RCCC’s mechanical engineering technology program, said some projects print for more than a day nonstop.

Whether developing an original concept or trying to recreate something, students start by using Computer-Aided Drawing software that allows students to make a two-dimensional drawing. That drawing can be rotated and viewed from any angle, mimicking a three-dimensional view.

That digital data then gets sent to the printer software, which generates a path to deposit plastic resin and eventually creates a finished project.

RCCC got the printer in 2010 for about $24,000. Some lower-end machines cost less than $500, while others are more than $150,000. RCCC’s printer uses an ABS plastic, a tough, low-cost thermoplastic composed of acrylonitrile, butadiene and styrene.

Just like inkjet printers, some have higher resolutions – which allow smoother, more detailed surfaces – and some print in color. RCCC’s printer prints along five-axis points (some have as many nine), and is a one-color.

This advanced technology prepares students for the workforce and engages them.

“We could teach drafting with a T-square, but that’s not the tool they’re going to be expected to use,” said Barringer. “It’s all about learning the most-recent tools and the most current skill sets they’ll be expected to have in the workplace.”

Justin Logan, 21, graduated from Concord High School and plans to earn an associate degree in mechanical engineering technology in the coming year.

“I’m just impressed someone thought of the concept and the leap that had to take mentally to pull it off,” he said.

Because metal is more expensive than plastic, using a 3-D printer cuts the amount of time it takes to test various products.

“We can just print out a dozen or more designs in plastic and test them to see which ones performs the best, as opposed to having a machinist painstakingly make each one of them and then fine-tune them,” said Logan. “This is a cheaper, almost throwaway version of testing because you can make a part and test in the same day.”

Logan said having access to this equipment – and the education behind it – will make him stand out more to an employer.

“I have a skill that a lot of people don’t have,” he said. “A lot of people can say they’ve worked in a machine shop …, but not a lot of people can say I’ve worked with a 3-D printer before.”

Cabarrus resident Bobby Foust, 20, started the program about four years ago when he was a junior in high school. He’s since graduated from RCCC with an associate degree in computer-integrated machining and an associate degree in mechanical engineering.

He has a job in his field and said he probably wouldn’t have gotten it without the education he got from RCCC.

“It’s a really good program if you like hands-on learning and interacting with machines,” Foust said. “In any job that I’ve had, whatever they’ve hired me on as, (my employers) haven’t had a problem with my work. I think the training here has been suitable for the places I’ve worked. I don’t think I could’ve got where I am today without (my professor’s) references and their teaching abilities.”

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