ERIE, Pa. — Innovators often think big when solving problems and creating solutions. That happens every day at Penn State Behrend’s Innovation Commons, but on a recent occasion, Mike Paul started to think really big, both literally and figuratively.
“We were meeting with a client, who needed to have something produced on a large-format 3D printer. It would have cost him thousands upon thousands to ship the work out,” said Paul, who was then a senior in electrical engineering at Penn State Behrend and manager of operations for the Innovation Commons. “I remember blurting out, ‘We’ll just build one,’ and everyone in the room stopped and looked at me. It hit me then and I thought, ‘What did I just say?’”
Paul’s foot-in-mouth moment set the course for a two-year journey that now ranks among his top accomplishments as a student at Penn State Behrend. Together with John Nowakowski, who was then a graduate student in the master of manufacturing management program, and Michael Gibilterra, then a sophomore electrical engineering major, Paul designed and built a large-format 3D printer from scratch. Behrend students Elijah Thompson, a senior mechanical engineering major, and Ryan Hutchinson, a sophomore engineering major, also helped with the build process.
The machine has a build volume of one cubic meter, and its footprint is roughly 1.5 by 1.5 by 2 meters. Any item within that range can be printed, from simple parts to full-sized 3D scans.
The printer is now operational and available for public use in Innovation Commons. The open ideation and prototyping space is open to entrepreneurs and innovators throughout Erie County and the surrounding region, including those at the student level, who need support to develop and prototype their potential products. Since opening in 2016, Innovation Commons has worked on more than 150 projects for 100-plus entrepreneurs and community members.
“The printer is now offered along with all of the other available services in the commons,” Paul said, “and it doesn’t have to be used just for large-format printing; it can be used for large-volume printing, too. It’s kind of a solution to a problem we don’t have yet, but that’s good because it’s a solution we already have once the need arises.”
The project was no easy undertaking. The students started the design process in November 2017 and finalized a design in July 2018. Construction ran from that point until the project’s completion in April 2019.
“I think it started with us drafting design ideas on a whiteboard where we kind of borrowed the mechanics of other printers that we knew worked,” Nowakowski said.
As with any design, the process involved frequent revisions and a degree of frustration.
“Everything that could go wrong basically did,” Nowakowski said. “The design phase was really complicated because we had to invent this. Then, when we moved to the build phase, numerous hurdles came up in the design. There were also several parts that we had to have milled out.”
Despite the challenges, Nowakowski and Paul both described the end result as gratifying. Paul estimated that he spent about 2,000 hours on the project.
According to Paul, a similar printer purchased on the open market would cost more than $80,000. The Innovation Commons printer was built for a fraction of that, and most importantly, it greatly expands the portfolio of services offered by the lab.
“I remember when the space first opened several years ago. We stayed after late one night, and we were just toying around with the idea of one day making something like this,” Nowakowski said. “We had no idea that this would actually happen, and it’s just been really special to see it all come together.”