A Look at the Future

Jan. 24—While 3D printing is considered relatively new technology, it has been around for nearly 40 years. Over the last 15 years, 3D printers and their software have become more affordable, making it a viable low-cost solution to many 'real world' production concepts.

Today, 3D printers have the capabilities to design almost anything imaginable, including houses and large-scale machinery. In many cases, a 3D printing technology can create a product more durable for much less money and with a much quicker turn-around time. Somerset Community College professor

Eric Wooldridge heads up the SCC Advanced Manufacturing 3D printing lab in the Valley Oak Technology Complex. Recently, Wooldridge and his team got a chance to show several community leaders how 3D printing technology could greatly impact businesses and communities. Pulaski County Government Administrative Assistant Cloyd Bumgardner gathered a good mixture of government and business leaders at the SCC 3D printing lab to show how the new technology could greatly impact their communities.

"It was very exciting and it was a great moment for us," Wooldridge stated. "It also goes to show that the predictions were correct that everyone can use this technology, whether it is for infrastructure rebuilding or even concrete construction. This (3D printing) is a huge industry, because it's going to reshape the way we do everything."

"The medical field is already using 3D printing and dental is already using it," Wooldridge stated. "3D printing allows manufacturers to not only make new products, but also improve their process. It just goes to show teachers they can actually use 3D printing in the classroom to do a host of things. So it's really just a proud moment of looking back and saying all the work, all the blood, sweat, and tears was totally worth it."

Bumgardner, who has spent a large portion of his professional career in the education field, sees the 3D printing as the next new great technology and he feels it will be used by almost every industry in the near future. As an SCC advisory board member, Bumgardner wants to make sure the Lake Cumberland area is prepared to take on the demands of this new technology.

"My interest is always been how to use technology to improve our lives and our economic wellbeing," Bumgardner stated. "I'm on the advisory council for Eric Wooldridge's programs using the 3D printing and additive manufacturing at Somerset Community College."

"I've seen lots of high-tech (3D printing) applications across the nation to see where they can lead and the wealth that it generates," Bumgardner added. "Whenever I got placed on that board I've just kind of taken it upon myself to play the 'go between' to help get people who have an interest in this type of creative use of technology to get them in the same room with the people who are making it happen."

Whitley County Judge Executive Pat White, local contractor Tim Hamilton, SCC's Andrew Clapper, SCC Director of Grants Elaine Kohrman, Abrahim Abdollahi of the Lake Cumberland Regional Hospital, Craig Lindon of LT Consulting, Perry County Judge Executive Scott Alexander, Tamra Wilson from Congressman Hal Rogers's Office, Center for Rural Development CEO Lonnie Lawson and George Corder of Citizens National Bank were all in attendance for the 3D printing informational meeting.

"I'm blessed to have developed lots of friends and lots of contacts over the years and keep good track of them," Bumgardner explained. "I was very happy that they came over and they all told me it was worth their time to come."

"The actual additive manufacturing program, which would be 3D printing, started at Somerset Community College several years ago while I was still an administrator in the Somerset School system, and that's where I became acquainted with it," Bumgardner stated. "Eric Wooldridge started applying for and getting grants working in conjunction with the University of Louisville and our own community college."

In 2013, Wooldridge's program received their very first desktop 3D printer, and it was the first time a 3D printer could be purchased for under $5,000. SCC has been building their 3D printing program with a primary objective of getting this technology into the workforce as quickly as possible across the state. They started building a curriculum and started building coursework. The National Science Foundation gave the local program their first bit of seed money.

"From that, we created the nation's very first 3D printing certificate, and accredited 3D printing certificate program," Wooldridge vaunted. "We are still the only state in the nation that has a statewide 3D printing certificate program that we have beamed across almost all the community colleges. And we're currently training high school teachers."

"We're getting close to nearly 200 teachers from K through 12 that are being trained to deliver our curriculum," Wooldridge said. "And also, in addition to that, through connections and growth and other grants, we've now put together a package where our courses are part of the Department of Education, like engineering, computer science and manufacturing pathways. This means that now our courses and our curriculum can be available to every high school student across the state."

Wooldridge explained that 3D printing could be utilized in almost any business or any type of constriction or production. Likewise, he wanted his 3D printing course to be part of other curriculums and not just a standalone degree.

"The way we designed it was we did not want it to be a completely two-year degree, because that limits it too much," Wooldridge explained. "We made it a 16-credit hour certificate so that it can be done quickly, easily, and be attached to any other program. So we have students who are in our engineering program that are getting a 3D printing certificate. We have folks who are in welding getting a 3D printing certificate, in addition to business, art, culinary, and obviously the medical field. Everyone can attach on the certificate without any major extra time spent at college."

"It was intended to be something that we saw 3D printing as the next computer skill, so that everyone needs to know how to do this because of the benefits in any industry," Wooldridge stated. "There's actually no industry that isn't being affected by 3D printing. Therefore, we felt it necessary to make it accessible to all."

Both Bumgardner and Wooldridge believe 3D printing will be the future of manufacturing and production, and they are preparing the local area to meet the needs of this upcoming technology.

"I have seen 3D Printing jobs in the Raleigh and Durham area with starting salaries at $70,000," Bumgardner said. "Why shouldn't we have that here in Pulaski County or Southeastern Kentucky? Why shouldn't we have access to those jobs that are going pay these good salaries in clean work environments? I think we have a window of opportunity to try to get our people to understand what's happening and try to draw these type of jobs into our area."

"I basically took it upon myself to initiate these meetings and there's been more than one." Bumgardner stated. "I think this is something you need to see, come look at it and it might help your community or business. We could be competitive with larger tech areas for these high paying jobs. We just have to get people ready."

In its simplest form, a 3D printer is fed a string of filament and melts if down at the nozzle to form a 3D object. The filament, which resembles a roll of weed-eater string, can be made up of multiple materials. Larger 3D printers can use concrete to form large-scale building structures.

The artificial intelligence (AI) built into the 3D printers can produce extremely strong and lasting objects with the weakest types of material. In some cases, the designer can just instruct the 3D printer the parameters of the product and what forces it needs to withstand, and the AI can do the rest.

Wolldridge, who is a licensed engineer in a couple of different disciplines, a registered architect and has a masters in manufacturing systems engineering with a focus on additive, is also leading his team in the practical uses of virtual reality (VR).

"What we're trying to do with VR is similar to what we did with 3D printing and scale this technology," Wooldridge explained. "The logic is good headsets are now available for less than $500. So for the cost of a college textbook, we can get a headset that can be used to teach any subjects."

"We are teaching teachers how to make their own VR modules," Wooldridge stated. "One of the major problems with VR and the reason it's been so stagnant in schools is because if you wanted to use VR, you had to go buy some software from somebody. You had to subscribe and pay per student to use their educational software, and we can't afford that."

"A VR system can be used to simulate what we would consider hard-tech skills," Wooldridge stated. "VR can be used to simulate welding equipment, it can be used to simulate certain machinery like dental and medical things. So our logic is if we can start to also create really good VR trainings that simulate very expensive equipment, we can make it possible to train people all over Kentucky on very expensive equipment without spending any money. We can train them virtually for about 70 to 80% of what they need to know, then we can easily take them to a workshop at the end of the training for a week or so to dial them in on the hard stuff."

Sometimes the future seems like a long ways away. With men like Eric Wooldridge and Cloyd Bumgardner leading the way in the local area, the future may be right around the corner.

Contact Steve Cornelius at scornelius@somerset-kentucky.com.