By Cliff Clark
Sentinel & Enterprise
LEOMINSTER — Three-D printing technology holds the promise of one day forcing a complete rethinking of the manufacturing process, and teenagers at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster are using it today to have some fun and learn at the same time.
“We’re giving our members the skills for the workforce of the future,” said Donata Martin, the club’s executive director.
Huddled around video monitors, several members were giggling and laughing as they fired up the computers to give the characters, that they developed for a story project they decided upon, shape and volume.
In the background, the MakerBot Replicator 3-D printer was warming up preparing to print in plastic a “poké ball,” a tool used by characters in the internationally popular Pokémon game.
That MakerBot Replicator has some of the features of a traditional inkjet printer with one significant difference — instead of ink being sprayed onto paper to create two-dimensional images, successive layers of a heated polymer are sprayed on a stable platform to create a three-dimensional object.
Hobbyists use these printers to create items like cellphone covers or chess pieces and fashion designers have used them to create articles of clothing. Medical researchers have even attempted to print replacement organs, like kidneys.
To introduce the Boys & Girls Club members to 3-D printing technology, learn computer-assisted design and make it fun at the same time, volunteer Kristen Domack asked the teenagers to come up with a theme or story in which they could design characters and have them printed in plastic.
“To get them involved and keep them involved, all the students collaborated on a story they would create characters for,” said Domack, who works in print production for Ricoh at the SimplexGrinnell facility in Westminster.
The story, according to one member and self-described “geek,” Leo Gonzalez, is based on a Japanese illustrated story form called anime.
The members are creating three-dimensional characters in plastic that, once completed, will be used in a shadowbox to illustrate a story called “Fairy Tails.”
Gonzalez, using a softward program call Tinkercad, was working on transferring his two-dimensional drawing of a “merman” to a three-dimensional character.
Using the tools in Tinkercad, Gonzalez, 15, and a student at Sizer Charter School, drew the primary shapes of the “merman” on the screen and then began manipulating the basic shapes into the character.
For Domack, that was one of the primary goals of the class.
“We want to give the students a basic knowledge of computer-assisted design,” she said.
Abby Jimenez, 13, a student at the McKay Art Academy was busily working on her character the “Jellyfish Queen” during the class.
Devyn Crowley, 13, a student at Memorial Middle School in Fitchburg, was designing a princess for the story.
She explained her creative process for building the character.
“You sketch what you want on paper until you’re happy with what you have and then you try your best to make it,” she said.
Building the virtual character using the software can take as long as a week, but the software has limitations, said Gonzalez.
“You’re more limited by the program than by your creativity,” said Gonzalez.
Domack said she had been attempting to use another computer-assisted design program that would allow her students more flexibility in design, but was having trouble getting it to load.
During the class Thursday, one member actually accessed the site that freely offers the program, PolyCAD, and for a few minutes, until it again crashed, the students could see the computer-assisted design program that “essentially starts out as a ball of clay,” said Domack.
In addition to building the character, the students also have to understand just how the printer will reproduce the image.
Gonzalez said he has to take into consideration when preparing to print the object the size of the platform on which it is printed and the maximum depth of the object — the printer can only create an object that is about 10 inches in height.
He also will have to design a support structure for the object while it is being printed.
Gonzalez said if the object isn’t supported and balanced correctly, it can collapse or warp.
The 3-D printing class was a “brainstorming idea,” said Martin, of several of her board members and local businesses, including SimplexGrinnell, Radius P.D., and a retired executive from Nypromold.