CCRI’s best-kept secret is located in a cavernous, well-lit workspace tucked away in the corner of the Knight Campus you might not even know existed unless someone took you down the elevator and escorted you inside.
The college’s manufacturing lab is a wealth of high-end, state-of-the-art equipment and is a premier destination for students looking to develop the necessary skills to land jobs in engineering, manufacturing and computer technology.
Engineering and Technology Professor Dr. Philip Miller and technology specialist Charlene Pelski hope more students visit the lab in the near future following the purchase of 42 new 3-D printers – the first of their kind on campus – through the Perkins Grant, a federal program appropriating more than $1.1 billion each year to further develop technical education programs.
“I’ve been here 31 years, and years ago we’d have equipment that someone wanted to unload. It was old equipment; it was older than me,” Miller said. “But now we’ve got equipment that’s used in the industry, so when students finish and they get exposed to this state-of-the-art equipment, they’re familiar with this stuff when they go work in companies.”
At first, Pelski envisioned every printer housed in one room, a “printer farm,” as she called it, but there wasn’t enough space on campus, so they placed several of the higher-end machines – some priced upwards of $145,000 – in the manufacturing lab.
With space at a premium and an increasing desire to get the word out on CCRI’s brilliant new technology, Pelski decided to disperse the printers to various departments. Most remain in Engineering and Technology, but Computer Studies, Chemistry, Communications, Art and even the Performing Arts Department now have their own 3-D printers for various uses, giving faculty and students firsthand knowledge about how this technology is used in everyday life.
“The gamut is extensive,” Pelski said. “The Chemistry Department has machines with knobs. Well, the knobs break, so they make their own knobs. It could be something that simplistic or it could be something really high-tech.”
Additional printers were used to create a smaller “mini-lab” at Providence’s Liston Campus. The process, from securing the grant money to the purchase and installation of the printers, has taken nearly four years. Pelski, who has done most of this work and also taught herself to repair and troubleshoot most of the equipment calls it “a long time coming.”
Grant money is also used to fund professional development workshops for high school teachers unfamiliar with how to use the equipment.
“We’re excited,” she added. “I’ve been here for 27 years and in this department for 25 and to see people come through the doors again, it’s fantastic. It really is.
“Back then, manufacturing was a heavily populated degree and then over the years it kind of went by the wayside. We do have a lot of manufacturing in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts, so they’re around. Now we’re looking to see it come back around.”
The wide-ranging size and functionality of the printers offers students a variety of experimental options. The MakerBot Replicator, priced anywhere from $1,300 to $2,700, can be used to create denture molds. The Markforged Onyx Pro, a sturdier $7,000 model often used in the automotive industry because of its heat-resistant printing, is used to create parts such as motorcycle brake levers or an impeller for accelerating air flow in an engine. Smaller models, such as the Flashforge Creater Pro 3-D printer, a desktop model roughly the size of a small toaster oven, are aimed more toward recreational use. Most units print using plastic and fiberglass, though some of the higher-end models use Kevlar as well.
Students are encouraged to experiment with the equipment, particularly the smaller models used to print layered plastic parts, some of which are being used by engineering students to complete the construction of wind tunnels as part of their class project.
Templates for 3-D printing can be downloaded online – everything from seasonal holiday decorations to cosplay accessories – or students can create their own projects through computer-aided design software, more commonly referred to as CAD. Adjunct professor Michael Rinaldi, who has worked with 3-D printers since 2003, hopes the influx of new equipment lures students into the engineering and technology field and encourages them to learn the fundamentals of technical drawing.
“What I’m seeing is if we talk more about drawing early in the semester, students will have a better handle on how to make their own parts,” he said. “This is a great opportunity.”
The idea, Pelski said, is to make all students, not just those in engineering or manufacturing, understand the benefits of 3-D printing (also known as additive manufacturing), a new wave of technology some have referred to as the eventual spark of a third industrial revolution, perhaps one day replacing the assembly line production that has dominated manufacturing for nearly two centuries.
“The feedback has been wonderful,” Pelski said. “It’s a new technology. It’s great technology. It’s wonderful.”
Whether it’s students from the CCRI Performing Arts Department using 3-D printers to make parts for a theater set or scientists creating pieces of fragmented turtle shells to replace holes on real shells, 3-D printing is everywhere, and, more importantly, this technology is a staple in today’s manufacturing industry.
Dr. Lauren Nicoll in the Office of the Dean of the Business, Science and Technology, who helped purchase the equipment, said it’s exciting that Pelski has fostered connections with other departments.
“From a grants perspective, it’s all about strengthening technical skills and so it’s not just within our most technical programs, but within our other programs so that we’re integrating more academic programs, arts, etc., with these technical skills that will go on and make these students more marketable when they are on the job market.”
The students taking advantage of the “million-dollar” lab in the basement of the Knight Campus or the wide range of portable machines scattered throughout various departments have a leg up on job seekers in the industry or other students looking to transfer to four-year universities.
The work Pelski’s team is doing continues CCRI’s initiative of providing the Rhode Island workforce with students who are equipped with the skills and know-how to operate such machinery, which makes for easier transitions from the classroom to the workplace and increasing productivity across the board.
Cadence Inc., a full-service contractor and supplier of medical devices located in Cranston, uses some of the same equipment in CCRI’s manufacturing lab.
“In their front window, you’re going to see these exact machines – the exact same thing,” Pelski said. “These are being utilized in the industry and we’re trying to teach the population how to use these so that when they go to a place like Cadence they already have knowledge of that particular machine.”
“Because the machinery companies are using is so high-tech, students have to have strong skills,” Nicoll added. “This isn’t the manufacturing of the past where you’re just watching an assembly line go by.”
While other colleges have similar equipment, they lack the expertise from faculty and staff members currently working in the industry. CCRI adjunct professor Paul Sardinha, who teaches night courses in 3-D printing, is also a senior design engineering lab specialist at Bard Davol Inc., which specializes in manufacturing specialty surgical projects such as catheters and blood clot filters. Bard uses 3-D printing in creating porotypes for new products.
“Our students are so far ahead, [the others] can’t even touch us,” Pelski said. “Their labs aren’t even equipped close to what we are.”
With a new wave of technology on campus and the tutelage of industry professionals, CCRI now has the tools to become a regional landing spot for students looking to specialize in manufacturing, engineering and technology.
The key is increasing the visibility of every asset the Knight Campus has to offer, which is why Pelski’s grass-roots campaign of dispersing printers, handing out brochures and displaying equipment in the windows of her offices to pique campuswide interest is an important step in CCRI gaining the notoriety it deserves in the technology field.
“CCRI’s role in this is to both strengthen career and technical education in the state and also to foster secondary and post-secondary partnerships,” Nicoll said. “Additive manufacturing is growing and it’s something that students are now hearing about, so we want to make it exciting. There are a lot of different options, so it’s exciting that they may play around with them in their classes at the high school level, but then they can get here and see that we have more advanced ones, plus the classes available in it.”