At 5 Years Old, UVA Engineering’s 3-D Printing Lab is a Prodigy

UVA Engineering’s Rapid Prototyping 3-D Printing Lab is celebrating its fifth birthday, and the lab has proven itself a prodigy with ongoing advances in education and research

Almost as soon as UVA’s $2 million Rapid Prototyping Laboratory opened five years ago in the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering building, lecturer David Scheffler created a project that demonstrated its potential. He set his students the challenge of printing a one-quarter-scale working replica of the Rolls-Royce AE3007 turbofan jet engine.  This is the complex engine used on the Air Force’s RQ-4 Global Hawk UAV, the mainstay of U.S. military surveillance efforts around the world.

The students succeeded, producing a model that is built to real aircraft tolerances and spins at 1,500 to 2,000 RPMs.  If it were made of metal instead of plastic, it would produce 1,000 pounds of thrust.

It is hard to overestimate the impact of a 3-D printing lab of this caliber, both on the UVA Engineering School and the larger community, since the lab opened in 2011.

“Three-dimensional printing is a game-changer,” says Dwight Dart, the center’s director. “And having the lab on Grounds in the Engineering School puts our students right at the center of that change — one that will continue to evolve for the foreseeable future.”

The Rapid Prototyping Lab features 3-D printers that build up objects a layer at a time, as well as machines that subtract material in order to create the desired object. Using instructions generated by computer-aided-design programs, 3-D printers and the subtractive technology machines manufacture objects that in many cases could be produced no other way, quickly and with a high degree of precision.

The capabilities of these technologies are revolutionary. The lab’s best 3-D printer, a Stratasys Objet Connex 500, is capable of replicating a design with 30-micron accuracy – or accuracy within .03 millimeters. The printer also can integrate multiple materials to create objects that are extremely realistic.

Hands-on Learning at the Engineering School

The impact of the Rapid Prototyping Lab on education, both in and outside the Engineering School, has been profound. Students from every UVA Engineering department — undergraduate as well as graduate — fill the lab’s dozen workstations, designing parts for projects in courses that have been updated to incorporate hands-on learning. For instance, students in a section of Introduction to Engineering compete to design the strongest cantilever bridge using just 2 cubic inches of plastic ink.

“The Rapid Prototyping Lab is a place where students can take an idea and turn it into something tangible,” Dart says. “That’s a powerful experience.”

Associate Professor Harry Powell, director of Instructional Labs for the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is one of dozens of faculty members who use the lab to increase the immediacy, relevancy and impact of their classes. In his fourth-year Capstone Design Course, Powell uses the lab as a way to encourage students to think about the electronics they create as part of a physical system.

“When they design a package to house the electronics or a mechanical component that their electronics can control, they start thinking beyond wires and chips and software code,” he says.

Powell also turns to the lab to produce many of the parts he uses in the hands-on learning modules he has added to courses like Introduction to Embedded Computing and Electromagnetic Energy Conversion.

“The lab gives me the opportunity to add elements to my courses that would be difficult or time-consuming to implement otherwise,” he says.

An Educational Resource for the University and Community

The educational impact of the lab, however, extends far beyond the boundaries of the Engineering School. Dart fields a steady stream of faculty and student requests from the University’s other schools. For instance, an environmental sciences doctoral student studying the drag produced by biofilms on ship’s hulls recently wrote Dart for information about producing models of these films. Another graduate student requested assistance replicating Greek vases from the University’s Fralin Art Museum collection; archaeology students can handle the replicas and gain a visceral sense of how the vases were used.

UVA Engineering is so well known for its expertise in the educational uses of 3-D printing that Stratasys, the company that makes the lab’s 3-D printers, asked Dart to serve on its educational advisory council. Locally, Charlottesville City Schools called on Dart for advice when setting up 3-D printing and design studios at Buford Middle School and Charlottesville High School.

Dart is now collaborating with a high school teacher in Lakewood, Colorado, to develop an interface for a desktop wind tunnel that Dart designed and printed. Their goal is to create a complete hardware and software package that teachers around the country can use to teach aerospace engineering.

A Stimulus for Advanced Medical Care

Education is not the only area being energized by 3-D printing. The technology is opening up entirely new avenues for medical research — and thanks to expertise at the Rapid Prototyping Lab, UVA has become a leader in this field.

Biomedical Engineering Professor Shayn Peirce-Cottler is interested in creating tissues that could be used to repair or even replace organs that have failed or been injured. To be viable, these tissues must have a blood supply.

“We think that the newly introduced 3-D bioprinters will enable us to pattern and print tissue with blood vessels in a high-resolution, high-precision manner,” she says.

Instead of the thermoplastics and photopolymer inks used in traditional 3-D printers, 3-D bioprinters use living cells and biopolymers.  Peirce-Cottler teamed up with Dart and Dr. Kenneth Brayman, a transplant surgeon, to secure the funding needed to acquire two top-of-the-line, Swiss-made bioprinters.

“Thanks to his expertise, Dwight was able to help us select the right model bioprinter for our purposes,” Peirce-Cottler says.

The bioprinters have triggered a round of innovative research collaborations at UVA. Since her bioprinter was installed in 2015, Peirce-Cottler has fielded dozens of inquiries from scientists around Grounds who see in bioprinting an opportunity to explore new areas of research. It also created opportunities for undergraduates. In the last year, Peirce-Cottler has advised three senior Capstone teams who have used the bioprinter in their design projects.

“There are few graduating students anywhere who can put on their resumes that they have experience bioprinting living materials,” she says. “I think that’s remarkable.”

Three-D printing is also helping physicians improve the delivery of standard treatments.

Endoscopes, a flexible tube tipped with a tiny light and high-definition camera, are commonly used to treat persistent sinus infections, but managing the instrument properly can take practice. An endoscopic surgeon at UVA turned to the Rapid Prototyping Lab to create a simulation of the nasal cavity and sinus, enabling his residents to perfect their technique before using endoscopes on patients.

A Touchstone for Business Creativity

Since the Rapid Prototyping Lab opened five years ago, executives and scientists from a host of major companies and government agencies — including Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, Airbus and Eastman Chemical as well as the Virginia Department of Education and the Army Research Lab — have come to Charlottesville to tour the facility. They have been interested not only in UVA Engineering’s use of 3-D printing but also in the technology’s potential for accelerating product development.

A good example is MITRE, a nonprofit federally funded research and development center. MITRE representatives visited the lab in 2013. The company was so impressed by a series of unmanned aerial vehicles that lecturer Scheffler designed and Dart manufactured that it purchased a suite of 3-D printers for its own use.

Many start-ups in Charlottesville have also taken note, turning to the lab to produce prototypes and parts. In some cases, making these prototypes has led to unanticipated new ventures.

In summer 2014, Suz Somersall, a local jewelry designer, was developing an online jewelry business at the iLab at UVA Incubator, part of the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Darden. Somersall, who had studied 3-D printing and manufacturing at the Rhode Island School of Design, was using the incubator’s small, low-resolution 3-D printer to design and model her pieces. Her female interns were curious about the process, and one suggested she contact the Rapid Prototyping Lab to find out about using the lab’s printers and securing instruction for the team.

“Dwight was thrilled to see all this female interest in CAD and 3-D printing,” Somersall says. “And having his expert advice on practical issues —such as the cost of a prototype or the best printer to use for a particular design—was invaluable.”

Seeing her students’ fascination with 3-D design, but also noting that the existing training failed to engage them, Somersall was inspired to create a new venture, KiraKira, to bridge that gap. She developed educational content that speaks directly to girls 8-15, teaching them age-appropriate CAD software packages as they design jewelry. The final product is a file that they can run on a local 3-D printer or have KiraKira produce. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Somersall launched KiraKira ( in 2015.

A Revolution in Design and Manufacturing

Over the last five years, the Rapid Prototyping Lab has placed UVA Engineering School students at the center of an extraordinary explosion of innovation, as hundreds of creative thinkers from every profession have come to the lab to explore new uses for its equipment.

But the rapid prototyping revolution is just beginning, as 3-D printers using thermoplastic and photopolymer inks continue to improve in resolution, speed and capacity and are joined by machines capable of printing in other materials, like glass, concrete, and steel. The new applications will go beyond made-to-order clothing or athletic equipment.

In the near future, neurosurgeons will be able to practice delicate, complex procedures on 3-D models that replicate a patient’s distinctive anatomy taken from an MRI or CT scan. NASA is experimenting with using 3-D printing in space to manufacture parts for the International Space Station, while the Army is testing the use of 3-D printing on the battlefield to create weapons and vehicle parts.  The 3-D printing revolution has just started to gain momentum.

Dart’s vision is that the University keeps pace with these changes. “The Engineering School and the Rapid Prototyping Lab are leading the pack in current advanced manufacturing technologies,” he says. “We are determined to secure next-generation machines so that we remain at the forefront of manufacturing education.”