Samples from the 3-D Printing Studio include (from left) a 3-D-printed representation of text, a chain, a bone from an MRI scan; and a husky.
Imagine if an astronaut could create a critical replacement part for the International Space Station on site instead of waiting for one to be delivered from Earth. In fact, NASA already has imagined it, and is launching a 3-D printer into space next year. 

Meanwhile, 3-D printing is revolutionizing almost every other field, including higher education. Recognizing the potential of this hot technology, Northeastern has brought 3-D printing to campus to ensure students are ahead of the curve in the job market.

So what, exactly, is a 3-D printer? Imagine it this way: A traditional printer deposits ink on paper to create a 2-D image. In 3-D printing, the print head goes back and forth, according to instructions in a computer file, depositing melted plastic or other materials layer by layer to create a 3-D object. That object might be a prototype for a mechanical engineering project, a miniature stage set for a theater class, an invention come to life for a venture capitalist, or a model of a cleft palate for teaching in a Bouvé class.

This technology is now available to anyone with Northeastern credentials. Opened in November as part of Snell Library’s expanding Digital Media Commons, the 3-D Printing Studio houses about a dozen machines, including 3-D scanners and laser cutters, low-end desktop printers, and full-size devices that produce creations at a much higher resolution. 

The impact of this technology is historic, says Will Wakeling, dean of university libraries, who helped create Northeastern’s highly anticipated lab.

“We see 3-D printing not simply as a manufacturing technique, but as a cultural and technological tipping point, as significant in its way as the invention of movable type and the microchip,” he says.  

Patrick Yott, associate dean for digital strategies and services, who was instrumental in designing the new facility, says Northeastern has seen the future, and he and the 3-D team have developed a lab that no other higher-education institution in Boston can match.

Along with other team members—postdoctoral student Rich Ranky, assistant academic specialist Mark Sivak, and adjunct technical instructor Janos Stone—Wakeling and Yott have designed a series of workshops and information sessions to teach the essentials. The devices will run 24/7 and jobs will be prioritized—a next-day classroom assignment will trump printing an iPhone case for personal use. Charges are based on a cost-recovery model, and the creation of the studio itself was made possible by the generosity of library donors.

Demand for studio time is high, according to Yott. He recently received an email from a student taking a year off to work in Africa who was interested in using the studio to produce custom orthotics from scans of patients’ feet. 

Just like the arc of the personal computer, it won’t take long for 3-D printers to become household commodities, Yott says. “They cost no more than a good Macintosh,” he says. So instead of running to CVS for a new toothbrush, you’ll be able to print one at home.

Furthermore, the ability to 3-D print equipment, parts, and devices at the point of consumption may make it possible for almost anyone to develop prototypes and reduce the need to outsource many manufactured products.

As stated in a recent Computer Weekly article, “The technology has the potential to fundamentally change the economies of scale for small, innovative enterprises.”