Duke University is home to one of the largest 3D printing networks in US academia. Over 120 3D printers are accessible by an entire student body enabling the prototyping and production of countless ideas and inventions. Applications vary with interest but it ranges from anywhere between entrepreneurial engineering to architectural modeling and beyond. Duke's Fab-Lab has found a way to democratize 3D printing by adopting cutting edge hardware technologies and combining it with sophisticated workflow software solutions that make 3D printing simple and approachable for all academic disciplines in their campus. We sat down with Chip Bobbert, CoLab Architect and Senior Technologist, to learn more on how they are managing their 3D printing network maker spaces.
Bobbert, former Command Center Specialist for the US Marine Corps, began working at Duke University in 2013 after spending two decades as a media technology engineer. His experience in conventional machining, media technology, 3D printing and education drives his ability to manage and improve the Duke CoLab.
What is so special about the Duke 3D printing network? “Duke is a geographically large campus, approximately 3,500 developed acres. We have three maker spaces, consisting of approximately 80 printers, while our sister labs are assigned to specific programs located in multiple locations. With over 120 total printers on campus, we have found a way to simplify 3D printing and enable access to over 2,500 students year-over-year. Our maker spaces are predominantly filled with a range of Ultimaker 3D printers and our collective network is powered by 3D Control Systems’, 3DPrinterOS software solution. These complementary technologies enable Duke students from any discipline to access the printer network and build parts.”
What are the challenges with having such a vast printer network? “First, we needed to determine how the program itself would work -- would students pay for parts? What does scheduling look like? How would we manage it? Having printers located throughout campus is great but we quickly realized that a middleware management software system would allow us to delegate rights to users and manage the flow of files from a centralized platform. We were shocked to find that not many software options like this existed, considering that there are countless 3D printers on the market, we thought this was rare.
Of course, the platform needs to function properly but we require an identity management capability that allows us to authenticate users from anywhere and be monitored from one location.”
How did Duke solve this challenge and what does access look like today? “After searching for a software platform and even creating our own, we decided to try 3DPrinterOS. The printer management functionality is good but the real benefit is user management. There are thousands of unique users every year so we need software that would integrate into our system and accommodate that type of turnover. Let’s face it, designing for 3D printing can be complex but the printers themselves are typically low IQ systems that require a boost for ultimate connectivity and user optimization. 3DPrinterOS helps us accomplish that and now, we are expanding access to 3D printing way beyond the engineering department. Inventioning is possible for designers, architects, sculptures, artists and more.”
What is the future of 3D printing at Duke? “Convenience is key. How can we make 3D printing as simple and easy as 2D printing? The software platform is a powerful tool that democratizes access to the 3D printer network but we need to get closer to printing something with a single click of a button. Nobody cares about the printer, they care about their designs and parts. As a 3D printer evangelist, I understand this and believe that if we continue to simplify the process then it will become much more convenient and accessible. 3D printing has the ability to unlock so many new opportunities for bespoke manufacturing, medical applications, and beyond. I want non-engineers, scientists, doctors, and anyone else to have the ability to get parts in hand.”