As they sipped sparkling wine from glasses engraved with the initials of the Industrial Manufacturing and Engineering program, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo University President Jeffrey Armstrong told a small group of engineering professors and guests that he’d visited their small lab in room 101 of the Engineering III wing before, when he first came to the school.
“I can hold my own in a lab,” he said, “but I’m a chemistry and animal science guy. I need some help from engineers when it comes to this equipment.”
They came together to celebrate the latest fruits of the school’s partnership with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), the delivery of an cutting-edge 3-D printing machine that can create designs from metal as easily as the desktop variety printer does plastic. Student demonstration designs already created on the $750,000, selective laser melting machine (or SLM) were on display for the guests like Armstrong who weren’t engineers to get a sample of just what the new tech is capable of, and Jim Meagher, interim dean for Cal Poly’s College of Engineering had as hard time containing his exuberance about the Colleges relationship with the national lab.
“Lawrence Livermore is a national treasure,” he said. “They’ve got some of the best minds working on the biggest problems. I truly want to thank hem for their continuing support.”
In the University’s announcement of the unveiling party he was a little more specific, “The addition of the SLM places Cal Poly at the top of virtually every manufacturing program in the U.S., especially for undergraduates, and strengthens our position as the nation’s leader in educating advanced manufacturing professionals.”
While getting a crowd of engineers to speak in simpler terms about the processes they’re used to describing in shorthand can be a challenge, Stephen Burke, LLNL’s engineering coordinator did his best with a visiting reporter. For starters the way you 3-D print in metal is by melting fine powder by aiming a precisely controlled laser at the mix. Even a three-quarter million-dollar machine is only capable of printing parts that fit inside a 3”x3”x3” cube inside the machine. In theory one could print a solid cube if needed, but the real usefulness would be in crating as many complex channels and intricate chambers inside as needed inside a part.
“Additive manufacture is a very important field for the Lab,” he said. “We’ve got a rocket motor…an insanely complex piece of equipment that’s wholly made with additive 3-D printing. It’s about designs you could never realize any other way.”
The SLM 125 is on unlimited loan to Cal Poly Engineering, and the Lab’s interest in educating the next generation of engineers on the machine’s use isn’t entirely selfless. Of some 2,700 employees at LLNL 100 are Cal Poly Engineering grads.