New Kensington engineering students build 3-D printer

Penn State New Kensington students are building a 3-D printer. Left to right are Ross Jubic, Sage DeFrances, Tyler Leatherwood and Brandon Kendall, along with Joe Trisoline.  Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

NEW KENSINGTON, Pa. -- For a fall semester project, students in the Penn State New Kensington Engineering Club are building a 3-D printer from scratch, and they are using parts manufactured by a 3-D printer they built from a kit during a spring semester project.

Electro-mechanical engineering technology majors Tyler Leatherwood, Sage DeFrances and Joe Trisoline, engineering major Ross Jubic, and information sciences and technology major Brandon Kendall built the printer as a part of an extracurricular activity for the club. Ron Land, associate professor of engineering, served as faculty adviser for the project.

“We used the popular Mendel Mono do-it-yourself 3-D printer kit to build a printer,” said Leatherwood, a graduate of Kiski Area High School. “We will use the printer we created to print parts for the new printer.”

The project was the brainchild of Leatherwood and DeFrances, president and vice president, respectively, of the engineering club. Both were interested on how 3-D printers worked and anxious to get into the details. Their idea was to help fellow students with engineering projects or hobbies.

“The main purpose of the printer is to make engineering designs a reality,” said DeFrances, a graduate of Greensburg Salem High School. “This can be through prototyping or just simply printing something of interest.”

At the start of the Fall 2013 semester, the engineering club consisted of two members, Leatherwood and DeFrances. As a show of solidarity, they elected each other as officers and set about expanding the membership. Using the lure of working with 3-D technology, the students set up a booth at Club Rush and signed up 11 new members. Club Rush is a day during the first week of classes where campus clubs set up booths, talk with new and returning students and extoll the benefits of participating in extracurricular activities.

“One reason why Tyler and I picked a 3-D printer was that it encompassed all the engineering aspects most engineers learn in their first few years of schooling,” said DeFrances, a junior and native of Export, Pa. “Architectural, electrical, mechanical, civil and other types of engineering were all involved in building the printer. Motor/printer movement is mechanical, the circuit and wiring work done is electrical, and designing of some of the parts on the printer is architectural and civil. Also, what every engineer learns in the engineering design course was done by building the main frame of the printer.”

3-D manufacturing technology is “additive,” the process of making a component by building it up in layers. It’s akin to making a ball of string by continuously winding the string. Classic manufacturing is “reductive,” which is the process of creating something by cutting away parts of it. An example of reductive manufacturing would be ice sculpturing -- the artist takes a block of ice and, using a chainsaw and chisel, makes a replica of Rembrandt’s “Mona Lisa.”

The students showcased their printer in April at the campus’ annual Research and Creative Exposition, which provides students in all majors the opportunity to conduct research, draw conclusions and present their information in a public setting. The engineering students printed a plastic cog-wheel as a demonstration project. The cog-wheel was created thread by thread in about three hours.

“A lot of people have a hard time understanding 3-D models created on the computer from software like Solidworks,” said Leatherwood, a native of Heiskell, Tennessee. “What is a better way to explain a model to someone than to print it out and show them?”

The advantage of 3-D technology is the ability to produce prototypes in any configuration without building special machining equipment, doing manual processing or making the prototype in parts that have to be assembled. It can be used to produce a single or limited number of items more cost-effectively than traditional methods.

“I am in the process of designing prosthetic-leg fairing mounts and will use the printer to prototype my ideas,” said DeFrances, who expects to earn a bachelor’s degree in 2016. ”The parts I create in Solidworks could be given to a manufacturer to be made of a more durable material like aluminum or a stronger polymer plastic.”

3-D printing also promises to have major impact on inventory management. Instead of warehousing many replacement and repair parts, a company maintains suitable feedstock and a 3-D printer to print parts as needed.

"Inventory management becomes a job of maintaining electronic files of parts drawings to drive the printer rather than managing a warehouse full of already built parts of all types," said Land, coordinator of the electro-mechanical engineering technology program.

While creating a new printer is still in the planning stages, Leatherwood and DeFrances are already working up new projects for the club, such as a modular 3-D printer. A modular printer would be able to etch material, draw 2-D circuits and machine material. The printer would have detachable parts to make it user friendly.

“Plans of making a filament extruder possibly could occur next year,” DeFrances said. “It would allow us to make the 3-D printer plastic material very cheaply and would allow us to recycle parts that were made and have no use after prototyping.”

Although 3-D printing has been around the scientific community since the 1990s, advanced technology is bringing it to the mainstream. As new materials are discovered to be printable, there could be few parameters for what can be printed.

“Major research is being done on 3-D printing organs,” said Leatherwood, a senior who will graduate in May 2015. “Scientists are already using this technology to print tiny strips of organic tissue."

When not in class or building a 3-D printer, Leatherwood can be found working on laser weapons at Penn State’s Electro-Optics Center (EOC). He helps design, test and build components for the high-powered defense systems used by the U.S. military. Leatherwood earned his position at the center through the campus’ GREAT (Growing Regional Engineering through Academics and Training) program. A collaboration of the New Kensington campus, Electro-Optics Center and industries in the region, GREAT establishes internships at local companies for engineering students. Whereas most internships are geared to juniors and seniors, GREAT interns can begin as soon as their first year in college.

“The internship is an advantage in getting an early start on competition,” said Leatherwood, a resident of Leechburg, Pa. “I am getting a feel for industry while building a resume and building experience."

For selection into the GREAT program, qualified engineering majors go through a competitive interview process with campus faculty and the business partners. Promising students are awarded four-year paid internships that provide opportunities to develop professional skills and gain workplace experience.

For more about the GREAT program, visit

For more on the Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology program, visit

A cog-wheel is born at Penn State New Kensington using a 3D printer and a computer software program. Credit: Bill Woodard / Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated July 08, 2014