Illinois MakerLab

Preparing for a 3D-printed future at the Illinois MakerLab

  • Written by Meaghan McBee
    Jul 19, 2017

In 2013, Dr. Aric Rindfleisch and Dr. Vishal Sachdev opened the doors to the world’s first 3D printing lab in a business school; the Illinois MakerLab on the University of Illinois campus. Launched without any direct funding from the university, the lab and its lineup of Ultimaker printers has become a staple for students and community members interested in rapid prototyping, small-batch manufacturing, and 3D printing education.

Although their first desktop printers proved frustrating and unreliable, the MakerLab really took off after they switched their entire lab over to Ultimaker printers in late 2015. The opportunity to work with Cura and have access to Ultimaker’s experienced community of Pioneers also influenced their decision.

Aric says, "We do all of our own maintenance and fix our own printers in the lab. We were in a situation where we needed reliable machines with better customer service, and became familiar with Ultimaker through the 3D printing community."

The open source aspect of Ultimaker fit very well with our ‘make and share’ mission. We established a relationship with Ultimaker a little over a year and a half ago, and we’ve been very happy with the machines.

The MakerLab’s ensemble of 20 printers includes the Ultimaker 3, Ultimaker 2+, Ultimaker 2 Go, and Ultimaker Original, clocking quite a few hours at the business school. The machines aren’t isolated to just one area of study—students from all over campus take advantage of this technology for a variety of projects, accounting for hundreds of visits to the lab each semester.

Illinois MakerLab Scanner
Illinois MakerLab students trying out a 3D scanner

Aric and Vishal have two primary focuses for the Illinois MakerLab: education and digital manufacturing. Not only do they hope to provide opportunities for students interested in 3D printing, but also they aim to network with community members who will benefit from having additive manufacturing technologies at their fingertips.

3D printing is enabling more small companies to emerge, whether they’re startups or people working part time, and that’s what we’re focused on. Besides the education mission, we’re a digital, small-scale print shop.

3D printing not only provides learning for students, but also vital connections within the business community, resulting in revenue for the MakerLab.

Novice? No problem.

There’s ample opportunity to learn and experiment with design at the Illinois MakerLab. In 2016 alone they held over 100 workshops for students and community members, imparting vital knowledge for 3D printing success. Offered workshops cover everything from the basics of 3D printing to creating 3D models with Tinkercad and Fusion 360. Curious makers can also learn about 3D scanning, or sign up for a workshop on Minecraft and 3D printing.

After completing the four basic workshops, attendees receive a Digital Maker Certificate that proves they have the essential skills for designing and printing objects, as well as working with CAD software like Autodesk, and Tinkercad. These workshops are essential building blocks for rapid prototyping and 3D design, instrumental in preparing students for industries that increasingly rely on digital fabrication.

Illinois MakerLab Ultimaker
Studying an Ultimaker print at the Illinois MakerLab

Although the majority of the MakerLab’s revenue comes from workshops and events, the staff also relies on donations and printing orders to bridge funding gaps. Anyone within the community can order prints in-person or online, as the MakerLab is part of the 3D Hubs network.  

“We just launched on 3D Hubs in January this year and we’ve been doing about 50-60 orders a month. Besides Aric and I who provide insight, all of the daily operations are handled by students,” says Vishal. Allowing student volunteers to take control of the printing process from start to finish delivers palpable experiences that they can carry with them after graduation.

Creative learning for young minds

When they’re not handling orders for 3D prints, students and volunteers at the Illinois MakerLab are engaging young minds through summer camps and parties. The camps, designed for children age 9 and older, seamlessly blend 3D printing with hobbies and learning.

Camp curriculum encompasses a broad range of ideas that tie into design thinking and 3D print technology—for example, how a NASA team may one day settle on Mars with the help of advanced manufacturing technology.

“At the summer camps we incorporate other digital making skills, such as working with microcontrollers,” says Vishal. “We combine that with a little bit of code or soldering to assemble, for example, a drone with a 3D printed frame. Or, we use code to build a bot that can respond in conversation using some cognitive AI capabilities at the back end. Modeling and printing create the shell of the end product, but there are different contexts for children to explore.”

MakerGirl Illinois MakerLab
A MakerGirl 3D printing expert in training

There’s no shortage of fun for children who visit the lab on campus. Parents can host birthday gatherings at the MakerLab; a popular alternative that provides children the opportunity to design and print their own party favors.  

MakerGirl, a foundation that aims to inspire girls age 7-10 through hands-on education, is also based in the Illinois MakerLab. It extends beyond 3D printing into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to broaden learning experiences and motivate curious minds.

Making things happen in education

In addition to providing workshops and activities for the community, Aric and Vishal want the MakerLab at the University of Illinois to be the world’s premier educator in desktop printing. To accomplish this goal, they offer 3D Printing coursework both in-person at the MakerLab and online on Coursera.org.

“Making Things,” a course offered by Dr. Rindfleisch, provides a hands-on experience for the maker process. Students are able to plan, design, and print their ideas, as well as market them to gauge the success of their creations. Presented by Dr. Sachdev, “Digital Making” is designed to train students on the various tools and technologies needed for digital fabrication. Dr. Sachdev invites students to investigate the IoT (Internet of Things) while also exploring e-textiles, like those used in smart garments for innovative designs.

MakerLab Ultimakers
Ultimaker printers ready for students in the MakerLab

Students are encouraged to sign up for online courses through Coursera as well, providing easier access to classes on 3D printing and modeling. One of their Coursera classes in the 3D printing specialization (3d Printing Revolution) is a global success, ranked as one of the Top 50 online courses in the world.

There are currently several available to students 24/7 with more on the way, including the upcoming  3D Printing Hardware course—created by Ultimaker’s own Matt Griffin—and a 3D Printing Software course contributed by Jeffrey Smith of Autodesk. As for the future, Aric and Vishal hope that their collection of 20 Ultimaker printers continues to prepare students for the next industrial revolution.

Aric and Vishal like to say that business schools can use 3D printing not only for startups, but also for "wake-ups."

This technology can be used to wake students up to the idea that they don't have to buy things that were someone else's idea. Instead, through 3D printing, they can turn their own ideas into objects.

The Illinois MakerLab is located at the Business Instructional Facility on the University of Illinois campus, open to visitors most days of the week with hours that fluctuate seasonally. They welcome all curious minds, from walk-ins and online orders to workshop inquiries.

Find more applications of 3D printing in education by browsing our Explore pages!

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