The Magic Printer
June 11, 2008 · Updated 11:24 AM
"Imagine you're skiing the slopes, and in the middle of the first run your binding breaks. Instead of panicking, you drag your skis to the lodge and log on to a ski manufacturer's Web site to purchase the appropriate binding. Nearby, a large three-dimensional printer produces the binding. You take it to the lodge shop for installation, and you're back on the slopes within two hours.Sound like something out of Star Trek? It's not. An early version of that technology is already at a local school.A Z402C3D Color Printer was delivered last week to the Olympic High School drafting room, and 12 of Jim Adamson's students recently completed a two-day training session to learn how to run it.Students can design plans on drafting programs like AutoCAD, RHINO, Autodesk 4 Inventor or the animation program 3-D Studio, and send the plans to print on the computer. Students can leave the copy stage of drafting and move into the imagineering part of it, said Adamson, a technology teacher.UNASSUMING APPEARANCEThe printer is about the size and appearance of a copy machine. But inside the glass cover, instead of an ink cartridge, is a bin of plaster-based powder. A printer arm crosses back and forth over the powder, shooting out a binding liquid. The binder's formula is a trademarked secret. Printed models are coated with wax, a type of super glue, polyurethane or other substances to make them more durable. Adamson's classes have begun to experiment with different types of coating to determine what works best.Several samples of the printer's work - the bottom half of a human skull, several sizes of pulleys, lawn mower components, bearings, a multicolored cellular phone face and toy fire trucks - sit near the machine in Adamson's classroom. I'm going to add the rest of the pieces on this vice grip and make it a working model, said OHS junior Jordon Kelly of one purple piece.It is like a sponge that takes on the characteristics of whatever you dip it in, said Josh Saller, a senior at Olympic. While printouts can be used to make moldings for machinery, the parts themselves also can be used if they are dipped in the right infiltration solution. The Z Corporation employee who taught students how to use the machine showed them a shoe insole that had been made from a print-out. The printer, however, isn't as fast as the Deskjet hooked up to your PC. It took students about five hours to print a large pulley, six hours to print half a human skull. When models are finished, they are dusted in a special machine and baked in an oven for 15 to 20 minutes at 150 degrees to hasten drying.ONE OF EIGHT IN NORTHWESTThe machine is incredibly durable and it is built to be used 24 hours a day. We feel really good about having it in the school, said Roger Diehl, a salesman and technician for Ideal Technologies, the business that loaned the $50,000 printer to Adamson.Eight of the printers have been sold in Oregon and Washington, according to Diehl. Boeing has one, Nike purchased three and the University of Washington has one. The others belong to less well-known institutions.Ideal Technologies purchased the printer as part of an agreement to become sales representatives for Z Corporation, the company that manufactures the printers. Roger and his brother, Tom, the owner of Ideal Technologies, have lived in Silverdale since 1969 and have known Adamson for several years.The reason it's sitting at Olympic is because of the enthusiasm showed by Adamson, Diehl said.The firm occasionally will take the machine out of the classroom for sales demonstrations, but the Diehls intend to leave it at the school whenever they aren't using it.We just see it as a great opportunity to let a high-end teacher who teaches high-end students take advantage of cutting-edge technology in our home town, Diehl said.APPLICATIONS ABOUNDAmong the machine's more amazing applications is that it could use stereolipography files from an MRI to print a out a life-sized copy of a brain or heart. Adamson said scientists have used the machine to print out the contents of a dinosaur egg that never had been opened. Clearly, there are broad applications for medicine, science and industry.The applications have captured the imaginations of Adamson's students, many of whom have their own project ideas.Matt Williams, a junior, once saw a television program about Siamese twins attached at the head. They were separated, but each was missing a piece of skull. He suggested an MRI could be taken and the printer could be used to create a skull piece exactly the right size.Other students see opportunities for business.One of my projects is a trash space reducer. We made a design in CAD but we are going to print out the design and see how it works, said senior Pat Ferate.Still others see opportunities for art.I'm trying to make a necklace, said Phil Borrelli, a senior. I'd take it over to the shop to do the aluminum casting. "