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Additive manufacturing can provide prototype of skill set required to be competitive in growing job market

Three-dimensional printers are revolutionizing industry, building careers

California community college students can build a career using a 3D printer. That’s right, 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is poised to revolutionize engineering and manufacturing and students with practical knowledge using the devices will be able to get a craft a high-paying job in a variety of technology sectors.

The 3D printing process is done by adding one layer on top of another, usually with the source material made of plastic or metal. This process is an additive process, which is why 3D printing is sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing. Once the user has inputted a digital blueprint via a Computer-Aided Design (or CAD) program, the computer sends that design to the 3D printer, which in turn builds the blueprint one layer at a time until completion.

3D Printing at Sierra College

Sierra College student Chessie Cooley-Rieders works on a prototype for a design project. Cooley-Rieders is majoring in biology and art but sees 3D printing as a valuable skill to have in both disciplines. "I get to see how other industries affect mine (animal sciences). The printers are already used to make dental implants. for instance, and parts for medical procedures on both animals and humans." she said.

Three-dimensional printers also differ from traditional machining in that they create less waste. In traditional machining, material is drilled or cut, with the leftovers generally discarded. Another advantage of 3D printing is prototyping. The printers allow for fast turn-around of models and usable components, saving not just time but also money. An engineer no longer has to send his or her designs out to a production house and wait for the part to come back weeks later before assembling the project's components. The cost and time crunch become acute if the part doesn’t fit or doesn’t meet specifications. But to have a 3D printer handy to produce the part on site saves time, money and prevents a lot of research and development headaches.

"Experience working on a 3D printer and in additive manufacturing is a valuable asset to have but the biggest plus for engineers who know how to work on the printers is instead of waiting two weeks or more for a part to be tooled and sent back, engineers are able to go to the office down the hall, hit print and come back in an hour or two with that part and start assembling," said Richard Livingston, a recent Irvine Valley College graduate who is transferring to California State University Fullerton in fall 2014. "I recommend to any engineering student to take as many additive manufacturing courses as possible. That experience makes you that much more competitive in the job market, that’s for sure."

That job market will grow along with the healthy economic projections. According to Wohlers Associates, the 3D printing industry in 2012 was worth $2.2 billion. By 2015, the additive manufacturing analysis company estimates the 3D printing industry will almost double to $3.7 billion. The economic outlook is so bright that the federal government has invested $30 million to establish the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. The institute is a consortium of community colleges, manufacturing firms, non-profits and universities who have combined to match the $40 million federal seed money. The institute will assist small manufacturers and train the workforce in additive manufacturing techniques.

"Additive manufacturing is a new field for everyone," said Thingify CEO Brian Arandez, who recently spoke to an engineering class at Irvine Valley College about additive manufacturing. “Classically trained engineers now come in at a disadvantage to a business working with 3D modeling. We essentially have to 'unlearn' them. But community colleges will have to invest in the technology because the students need to use the machines. The printers are like the first PCs in classrooms in the 1980s. You had to actually use it, play with it, and program it. We expect the students to fail and experiment, but every engineer in the near future will need to have experience with a 3D printer, it’s just going to be expected. And any manufacturing job I can think of will require some experience on the printers, too."

There are no associate degrees offered in 3D printing at any of the 112 California community colleges - yet. That shows how new the technology is and its impact on industry. But Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College in Southern California and Sierra College in Northern California are leading the way in making 3D printing an integral part in any engineering and manufacturing-related major.

"The goal is to give the engineering students something practical, some engineering technology experience and that’s makes them more employable," said Dr. Christopher McDonald, Saddleback College's Dean of Mathematics, Science & Engineering. "(3D printing) is actually an interesting merger of theory and the vocational aspect. We already have about 80 percent of the curriculum built for the degree program, but we still need to have more interaction with more 3D printers."

Sierra College has elected to focus on getting local high school students the access to 3D printers so when they enroll at the Rocklin community college 20 miles northeast of Sacramento they are at least proficient, if not ready, to enter the workforce while finishing their associate degree requirements and transferring to a four-year university.

"Additive manufacturing is about access and our curriculum works well for engineers but also product developers," said Carol Pepper-Kittredge, the Centers for Applied Competitive Technologies director at Sierra College. "In the near future, the best users of additive manufacturing my come out of the art department. This is a tool that can go across divisions. We're working to build capacity at local high schools and we have 3D printers on loan to four high schools where students are working on them almost daily. The teachers are changing curriculum to focus on what is product development, what is product design and how we develop that into career pathways"

The Centers for Applied Competitive Technologies at Sierra College also provides access to additive manufacturing to area businesses for design and product development. Soon, students who take classes at Sierra College and become proficient on the 3D printers will become prime recruits to these local businesses who already partner with the college.

Bogdan Chepurny is a Sierra College mechanical engineering student who hopes to transfer to UC Davis soon, but not before he and his Arts & Engineering Club members enter the annual Kinetic Grand Championships in Arcata in May 2014. Many of the parts that will go on their entry will be produced on 3D printers, Chepurny said. But there’s also one other important advantage his team has over the competition.

"I’m sure a lot of students in the state don’t have access to 3D printers like we do and as head of design, I've been working on our computer-aided drafting computers to print the miniature prototype and then present it to potential sponsors of our race entry," Chepurny said. "Sponsors can see and hold the prototype rather than just look at a 2D drawing. That’s the type of real-world experience we need as community college students to help us in our careers."