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Discover the 3D printers of E-Wing: An insider look at Mohawk’s AMRC

Visible behind large panels of glass in a hallway in the E-Wing are some very unique printers. 3D printers to be exact.

These 3D printers are based at Mohawk College’s Additive Manufacturing Resource Center (AMRC), an iDeaWORKS lab that works on applied research projects with industry.

When you hear of 3D printing, says Robert Gerritsen, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Mohawk College and coordinator of the AMRC, you’re likely going to hear about two concepts: 3D printing and additive manufacturing.

When people talk about 3D printing, explains Gerritsen, they are talking about a particular process, a particular group of materials and a particular application. Calling it 3D printing is the simplest way of understanding the work undertaken at the AMRC. “In a nutshell, what we do in this lab is bring the digital into the physical. We reproduce 3D physical replicas of particular objects.”

In regards to the more complex concept of additive manufacturing, the focus shifts, with an emphasis on producing shapes, previously deemed impossible, for specific industrial purposes. “The biggest difference - or advantage - of additive manufacturing equipment is getting to produce impossible geometry,” says Gerritsen. “One way to describe this is that ‘You can’t drill a curved hole, but we can create it.’”

The two large machines that stand immediately behind the AMRC’s wall of glass are focused on additive manufacturing. One machine focuses on Selective Laser Sintering (SLS); the other on Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS). They share features in common with some major differences.

The DMLS machine uses the application of a laser upon fine metal powder to convert that powder into a solid metal object. There are roughly a dozen of available materials that can be used, including titanium, aluminum and steel. However, Gerritsen does offer a word of caution about the technology which prints metal: “When we look at the DMLS process, it’s not a Swiss army knife. It’s not the right process for every application out there, but it’s absolutely the right process for very specific applications.”

The SLS works in much the same way as the DMLS says Gerritsen, using a “powder bed fusion system”. Unlike the DMLS process, there is “a bed of plastic powder with a powerful laser sitting on top that fires into the plastic powder,” turning the fine plastic powder into a solid, chunk of plastic.

However, as Gerritsen explains, the large machine does more than your typical plastic 3D printer that can be purchased for home use. “Stepping up to the SLS means dealing with polymers and polystyrenes, very much more robust plastics all-together; it’s also much stronger and much tougher.”

Additive manufacturing technology allows for the manufacturing of parts in hours and days instead of weeks and months. This, Gerritsen says, is where its true prowess is shown. One key example is in the area of orthopedic and prosthetics. “Typically, with the process today, patient wait times are in the 10-12 week range- with additive manufacturing we can now bring it down to 10-12 days.”

“There is so much more detail, and it’s much more precise.”

Beyond the benefits to industry, the new technology has created opportunities for incoming and current students to learn the machinery and technology. Mechanical Engineering student Jason Podger is one of them. As a co-op student at the AMRC, he sees firsthand that access to the technology is the key for industry- and for giving Mohawk graduates a competitive edge.

“I believe it’s going to be a very important part of the industry as far as manufacturing. So having access to new equipment and new technologies that are just starting to creep their way into industry is a really good asset because we are learning skills that people are going to be looking for that nobody else has.”

Podger detailed the opportunities that fellow Mohawk students will have to get themselves involved with the machines behind the glass.

“There’s going to be an additive manufacturing course as an elective in the fifth semester of mechanical engineering. If people would like to get involved earlier, they can volunteer, or come talk to us at the lab.”


About the author:

Nick Birnie is a student in Mohawk College’s Journalism program. He is completing his internship with iDeaWORKS, Mohawk’s department of applied research and innovation. 

About Mohawk

Mohawk College educates and serves 30,000 full-time, part-time, apprenticeship and international students at three campuses and two City School locations at the Eva Rothwell Resource Centre and the Central Public Library in Hamilton, Ontario. Mohawk has ranked first among all Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area colleges in student satisfaction for seven consecutive years and first in graduate satisfaction for the past five years. Mohawk ranks 15th among all colleges in Canada for applied research activity and has been named among Canada’s greenest employers and the region’s top employers for the past three years.