Associate Professor of Physics Greg Voth reached onto his desk and grabbed a small plastic cylinder. Inside, tiny purple snowflakes made of plastic were settled in liquid. Voth shook the tube, and the snowflakes began to spiral.
“A lot of people use the 3D printer to visualize their molecules because having it in their hand is different than seeing the abstract model on the computer,” Voth said. “That’s not the case with physicists. We need precise models.”
Three years ago, before the University acquired its modest collection of 3D printers, Voth became interested in the prospect of printing in three dimensions. He found a group at Yale, and later one at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that allowed him and his colleagues to experiment. Since the University’s purchase of its own 3D printers, Voth has been working with students to conduct research using this technology.
“The things we’ve been printing recently are all differently shaped particles,” Voth said. “Four-armed objects. Helices. Most experimental research projects have students focused on doing them. I organize my group as students spearheading individual projects.”
Three-dimensional printing has certainly influenced Voth’s students’ work. Just last fall, Guy Geyer Marcus ’13 won the 2013 American Physical Society LeRoy Apker award for his work studying particles in turbulence, which is also Voth’s area of expertise. Now a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, Marcus worked with the new printers extensively as an undergraduate at Wesleyan; the name of his prizewinning talk was “Using 3D Printing and Stereoscopic Imaging to Measure the Alignment and Rotation of Anisotropic Particles in Turbulence.”
Assistant Professor of Mathematics Ilesanmi Adeboye agreed that the introduction of the 3D printer has transformed the ways his students think about shapes.
“We look at 3D printing as a continuation of visualization,” Adeboye said. “The first level of visualization is the blackboard, which is limited to artistic skill. The second level is computer graphics. But with the printer we’ve been able to look at interesting models of spaces that have odd and limiting properties. You can talk about it and try to draw it, but when you see it, it’s pedagogically an important thing.”
Adeboye explained that the printer requires the use of standard computer-aided drafting (CAD) software, which allows for the creation of 3D models. After the model has been designed with the CAD, it’s as simple as sending it to the printer.
The Math Models Club, which Adeboye co-advises with Assistant Professor of Mathematics Dave Constantine, is a self-selected group of math and computer science students who have been especially eager to work out the kinks in the software and the printer.
“I’ve found that there’s a ton of enthusiasm,” Constantine said. “A lot of [the Math Models Club students] knew more about 3D printing than I did…they’re much more savvy than I am. We have found that there’s a built-in excitement about the printers. We didn’t have to work hard to generate interest.”
3D printing seems to be an invention from the future, and, quite appropriately, it is changing the future of mathematics. Constantine pointed out that printing in 3D allows for different models, ones that can be produced to suit any mathematician’s whim.
“If you went to MIT and wandered around, you would find plaster models of mathematical solids,” Constantine said. “Those models were things that were interesting to people in the 1950s, but there are some new things that are interesting to people now. We want to make models of those.”
At the end of our interview, Voth offered a tour of the printer in Exley. He led the way down the basement corridor and into one of the labs, and there it was: roughly the size of a microwave and stowed unassumingly under a fume hood. It was surprisingly modest for a device that will change the shape of research; in fact, the enormous tank beside it, which Voth and his students fill with water to study particles in turbulence, seemed larger and more complex.
Voth explained that the end of a spool of plastic is inserted into the back of the printer, which melts the thin plastic tube and then begins the painstaking task of whooshing back and forth and side to side to construct whatever object has been commanded. Because the burgeoning object must be supported at all times, a collecting plate is suspended at varying levels as the product takes shape. Voth pointed to a small 3D-printed dinosaur, white with many thin bones, perched on the computer.
“This must have been printed in multiple parts,” Voth said, showing me. “The pieces aren’t attached, but inserted into each other. This must have taken many, many hours.”
Much of the majesty of the printer is that it can do what humans cannot: build the minute and the precise (like Voth’s snowflakes), as well as the enormous and the precise, such as entire buildings, which, according to Voth, people are experimenting with creating.
“This is a very powerful technology,” Voth said. “It is going to become ubiquitous, but what form it takes is hard to tell. Will it be in our homes, or will there be a 3D printer at CVS? Will there be online companies who download your design and send it to you in two days? It depends on how the technology develops.”
Price is a substantial piece of this question. The original 3D printers cost 250 thousand dollars. Today, a standard 3D printer will set a research organization (or a technologically savvy household) back only three thousand dollars. Although it’s uncertain as to whether printers will appear in the average American home, Voth, Adeboye, and Constantine are certain that they will be a mainstay in the University—at least in the foreseeable future.
“We’re hoping that this will be an ongoing thing in future semesters—having students come in with ideas,” Adeboye said. “I’d be happy for as many students as possible to be thinking, while they’re taking that complex analysis or multivariable course, about how to build something.”