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Whoa! WHEA student designs, builds 3-D printer

January 15, 2014 - 8:48am

Riley Tsunoda has been interested in state-of-the-art, 3-D printing technology since his public charter school, West Hawaii Explorations Academy, purchased a printer kit and his robotics team assembled the Printrbot LC last year.

The students used the 3-D printer to create various things, including parts for robots, key chains, logos and school memorabilia. Whenever the printer needed upgrades or repairs, Riley, who has a strong interest in engineering, was always among the first to tackle the tasks at hand. It didn’t take long for Tsunoda to figure out the machine’s weaknesses and strengths — all of which led him to want to make something better.

So, the 17-year-old WHEA senior did, with a few hundred dollars and a couple of months.

About two weeks ago, Tsunoda finished his fully functional 3-D printer called Tsudoshi, which is his grandfather’s first name and his father’s middle name. The machine is capable of 100 micron resolution prints out of different manufacturing materials, such as nylon, polylactic acid (a plastic made from renewable resources and known as PLA) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (a plastic referred to as ABS that’s resistant to shattering when dropped or hit and used in Lego blocks). The cost of PLA filament is about $20 a pound.

His printer is able to do tabletop cutting, etching and injection molding.

Tsunoda builds 3-D objects with a computer program. He then uses another program to convert the image into instructions for the printer. Basically, that program slices the file into horizontal pieces or easily printable layers. He then “prints” that object according to the specs and parameters of the program.

Filament is loaded into the printer’s extruder, the part that squeezes out strings of hot plastic material. Motors move this extruder and a circuit board tells the parts where to move. A thin base is laid first and more layers are added slowly until the object is completed. How long it takes depends on the object’s size and complexity. For instance, his printer built a hand-sized spur gear in about 34 minutes.

What Tsunoda likes most about 3-D printing is the possibilities seem endless. “Basically, if you can heat it and harden it, you can print it,” he said.

Besides creating an exact version of almost any physical object, the technology offers many other benefits, including being cheaper, greener and saving time, he said.

Tsunoda shared his creation last weekend at The Pacific Symposium for Science &Sustainability in Honolulu, where he received many positive responses. WHEA officials said Tsunoda may be the first high school student in the state to design and build a 3-D printer.

In addition to creating a better performing machine for his school, Tsunoda hoped to prove that 3-D printers should be made using equal or less money than the ones available for sale. He said the school’s Printrbot LC cost between $600 and $700. The cost to make Tsudoshi was $603, which was the total amount paid for parts.

The robotics team paid for the project using money it has received from donors and generated during fundraisers. Tsunoda had to submit a project proposal to teacher and robotics coach Liana White for approval.

Prior to construction, Tsunoda researched the different types of 3-D printers, the hardware and software. He then made several prototypes — the seventh was the design he eventually built. He said his father, Duane, who is a fabricator and machinist with 30-plus years of experience, was extremely helpful in getting him to simplify his design and consider what’s necessary. He also got support and ideas from online forums pertaining to 3-D printing, a technology that has been steadily growing since 2005.

It took roughly a month to construct the solid box-like structure with a printing size of 200-by-200-by-200 millimeters. Frequently, he uses solid aluminum and stainless steel parts because of their life expectancy. One of the problems with Printrbot LC was the main construction material is plywood, which was not holding up too well, especially considering WHEA’s campus is mostly outdoors and close to the ocean.

Tsunoda constructed Tsudoshi’s internal systems, integrated the electrical systems and did the software configuration. A considerable amount of time was spent calibrating and tuning the machine. While Tsunoda built the machine by himself, he also got valuable assistance and guidance from mentors, including electrical engineer Allen Stueben, he said.

Tsunoda said this project further enhanced his creativity, problem-solving, confidence and determination. For him, building this printer was an accomplishment.

“When I set out to do this, I wasn’t 100 percent completely sure I could do this,” he said. “This project proved that it doesn’t matter what place you are or what background you have. As long as you are willing to try as hard as you can and learn along the way, and you can convince others to believe in it too, you can accomplish anything.”

By the end of the school year, Tsunoda will submit a final assessment about his machine. In the meantime, he’s training three students to use Tsudoshi, which will remain at WHEA after he graduates. He’s also in the process of making replacement parts for the Printrbot LC. Tsunoda is planning to attend the University of Hawaii at Manoa next year to study environmental science.