Mechanical engineering student glides through summer helping with 3-D printing class

January 3, 2017

Spending part of a summer teaching people how to make tiny gliders and fly them may sound like a camp counselor's task, but for Penn State student Andrew Bellows, it was a critical experience in his journey toward an engineering career. And his students were not children, but defense industry and military engineers.

Bellows, a junior mechanical engineering student, helped deliver a three-day short course on additive manufacturing hosted by the Applied Research Laboratory (ARL) at Penn State and supported by the Naval Sea Systems Command. Held in late August, the "Operational Responsiveness Through Additive Manufacturing  Short Course" drew 20 participants, all working engineers, to the University Park Campus to learn about 3-D printing.

The goal was to illustrate that 3-D printing can be "operationally responsive", meaning that it can be fast enough to create parts on-demand during military operations.

"One of the things we were trying to show was that you can turn parts around quickly. You can rapid prototype and print it in a day or two," Bellows said. The gliders were 3-D printed and used as the example for the class.

The gliders are constructed of polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic made from renewable resources like corn starch. Bellows used 3-D printers at the Made by Design lab —  part of the Penn State School of Engineering Design, Technology and Professional Programs, and in the Maker Commons — a lab of 32 3-D printers in Pattee Library's Knowledge Commons, for the project. All of the 3-D printers used are MakerBot Replicator 5th Generation models.

For the exercise, Bellows provided two custom glider parts to all participants that he designed — a pre-printed body and a nose fin. The participants then did their part by learning how to use design software and computer-aided modeling to print their own designs for wings and two stabilizers. They then moved on to post-processing: removing the parts from the printer and preparing them for assembly.

Once assembled, the craft were ready for flight testing, and the class headed to an open, grassy spot in Innovation Park.

"They flew really well," Bellows said. "Most flew between 50 and 100 feet."

Tim Simpson, professor of mechanical engineering and co-director of the Center for Innovative Materials Process through Direct Digital Deposition, a PSU center focused on the advancement of additive manufacturing, was part of the team offering the class and recruited Bellows to play a role.

"We challenged Andrew to help design and develop a new 3-D printing activity that we could use in the classroom with students of any age," Simpson said. "The glider was a great example to illustrate the benefits and advantages of 3-D printing."

Bellows also created a website entirely on his own using to help instruct students on the process of creating their glider. The website offered step-by-step instructions, provided the initial models for students to download, and showed some design possibilities.

Looking back, Bellows is pleased he decided to spend the summer in State College instead of going home to the Pittsburgh area or seeking an internship. In addition to the ARL short course, he worked on another project in the department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering.

"I'm glad I stayed and worked on these projects. I got much more experience than I would have if I had gone and gotten a job for the summer," he said.

Bellows' next adventure in engineering will be a cooperative education program working at General Electric in New York from January through August, where hopes to add to his resume once again.


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Chris Hennessey

3-D printer

MakerBot 3-D printers housed in the College of Engineering and at Pattee Library were used in preparing and executing the class.



The Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering at Penn State is one of the nation’s largest and most successful engineering departments. We serve more than 1,000 undergraduate students and more than 330 graduate students

We offer B.S. degrees in mechanical engineering and nuclear engineering as well as resident (M.S., Ph.D.) and online (M.S., M.Eng.) graduate degrees in nuclear engineering and mechanical engineering. MNE's strength is in offering hands-on experience in highly relevant research areas, such as energy, homeland security, biomedical devices, and transportation systems.

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