Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering opens Innovation Laboratory

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At the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering, students are designing the future — and printing it in 3-D — in the new Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering Innovation Laboratory

VCU’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering worked with 3-D printing industry leader MakerBot to establish the commonwealth’s first Innovation Laboratory featuring a MakerBot Innovation Center. The MNE Innovation Laboratory facilitates rapid prototyping of devices with a manufacturing suite that features 30 MakerBot Fifth Generation Replicator Desktop 3-D Printers and three MakerBot Replicator Z18s for producing extra-large objects. It also houses 3-D scanners and digitizers to allow for reverse engineering capabilities.

Due to the enhanced networking capabilities of the facility in East Engineering Hall, students have the ability to use the 3-D printers from off-campus locations, via the MakerBot Innovation Center Management Platform. MakerBot’s high-quality 3-D printing output, reliability and superior technical support factored into VCU’s decision to work with the company to present this state-of-the-art learning resource.

The facility dramatically increases all engineering students’ access to 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, which is becoming an essential component of 21st-century education in design engineering and product development.

“The new MNE Innovation Laboratory will provide VCU students with the latest tools to rapidly turn their creative ideas and inventions into working prototypes,” said Gary Tepper, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering. “Students learn academic concepts in the classroom, but they get tremendous satisfaction and a much deeper understanding when they apply their engineering skills to build and innovate.”

The ability to design, fabricate and test sophisticated prototypes quickly in-house allows students to investigate unforeseen problems and improve functionality early in the design process.

When prototypes are made via 3-D printing, required design modifications can be quickly identified.

“Students often create designs on a computer and think it’s right. Often it’s not,” said L. Franklin Bost, executive associate dean of innovation and outreach. “When prototypes are made via 3-D printing, required design modifications can be quickly identified. That’s the learning moment and speeds the development process.”

Students of many levels and engineering disciplines will experience those kinds of learning moments in the MNE Innovation Laboratory. MNE’s computer-aided design and additive manufacturing courses will make substantial use of the laboratory for mechanism design projects such as soap box derby cars, trebuchets and Leonardo da Vinci’s armored car invention. VCU’s computer-aided engineering courses will also use the lab for team projects.

“It will foster a hands-on learning environment for the entire School of Engineering,” said Charles Cartin, Ph.D., director of the MNE Innovation Laboratory. “When we started thinking about this last year, rapid prototyping for product development was becoming a hot item for undergraduate studies and Capstone projects. This technology is providing students with practical engineering experience that reinforces design, innovation and engineering concepts related to all disciplines within the field of engineering.”

The laboratory’s resources will be invaluable this spring during VCU Engineering’s signature Capstone Design Expo, an annual event that showcases engineering seniors’ innovative research and design prototypes. Cartin also foresees collaborative mechanical, nuclear and biomedical engineering projects such as the development of new medical devices for cancer treatment or drug delivery taking place in the MNE Innovation Lab. 

The facility also supports all nuclear engineering courses related to the design and manufacturing of nuclear systems. Students within the mechanical engineering curriculum focusing upon the nuclear concentration can use the 3-D printing suite to design, fabricate and test various devices related to the nuclear engineering undergraduate curriculum.

“The equipment in the MNE Innovation Laboratory will allow our nuclear engineering students to easily evaluate the performance of various accident tolerant nuclear fuel concepts or innovative passive safety systems for advanced nuclear reactor designs,” said Sama Bilbao y Leon, Ph.D., director of VCU nuclear engineering programs. “Having the opportunity to hold a sophisticated component in their hands permits students to perceive the nuances of a design and assess the potential for improvement.”

“It’s exciting that the MakerBot Innovation Center at VCU’s MNE Innovation Laboratory has applications that are unique — prototyping nuclear engineering innovations at scale is something we haven’t seen before,” said Wallace Patterson, global director of educational enterprise sales for MakerBot. “Clearly the leadership at VCU is concerned with giving all of their engineering students access to the tools they’re going to use every day to find real world solutions when they graduate.”

The laboratory also equips the university to challenge and inspire future engineering students. Its resources will figure prominently in a middle school outreach program starting in summer 2017. The weeklong program will feature daily activities related to engineering, such as design, innovation and product development. In the process, the participants’ access to CAD and 3-D printing will help them refine their design, development and collaboration skills.

“The MNE Innovation Lab will allow engineering students to develop their intellectual curiosity and problem solving skills, which is essential in real-world applications,” Tepper said. “This lab will assist in that endeavor by educating students to view problems from multiple perspectives applying creativity, fresh perspectives, and ideas. It prompts students to ask, ‘Why not?’ when presented with a solution that would strike others as too difficult to apply or implement, and to take ownership in their work by wanting to exceed expectations/goals and to think outside of the box with any given project. This innovation laboratory will allow students to transform a conceptual idea into a fabricated product, reinforcing the engineering design and troubleshooting process from start to finish.”


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