On the third floor of Druckenmiller Hall, 3D-printing innovations are taking place. There, in the lab of Assistant Professor of Chemistry Soren Eustis, students and faculty are constructing everything from scientific equipment to cartoon figurines from pieces of plastic.

Eustis’ work began in 2012 when he bought a used 3D printer for his lab. A self-proclaimed tinkerer, Eustis wanted to explore the endless possibilities of what he could print. However, he soon found that the used printer was not adequate.

“It turned out that that one was really good for making sort of useless stuff,” said Eustis. “My students loved it, but it really wasn’t reliable enough or precise enough to do anything useful with.”

Shortly after, Eustis received funding from Bowdoin to buy a new 3D printer. He has since moved on from printing figurines to printing objects that have significant use in the lab, like vial racks and parts of a quartz crystal microbalance.

Many object designs are available for free online. Once someone uses the printer this design information, it proceeds to heat plastic filament and extrude it layer by layer until the object is complete.

By making these objects himself, Eustis saves a lot of money. A new quartz crystal microbalance, for example, can cost around $10,000—a steep price for a single piece of equipment. To cut costs, Eustis has been experimenting with building the microbalance himself, which allows him to build prototype designs for several hundred dollars. He prints some pieces and orders the others, like the crystal, that cannot be printed.

“You take away a lot of the cost that isn’t very specialized and then you just spend your money on the important components that can’t be printed,” said Eustis.

He can also test his own designs—rather than using open source plans from the Internet—with less restriction.

“It allows me to try things that I wouldn’t be able to try before,” said Eustis. The hope is that we get good enough at designing things from scratch within the lab so that, if we have a concept, we can completely design it ourselves.”

Eustis finds his work applicable to his classes as well. For his introductory chemistry class, Eustis has printed 3D periodic tables. Both the construction process and Eustis’ teaching approaches have fascinated students.

“I think it’s far better at teaching [students] about scientific apparatuses and what they’re actually doing if we’re designing them ourselves,” said Eustis. “We always lament how instruments these days are so black box. It really is good for students to have some working knowledge of what’s going on inside.”

Students in his lab, like Dave Ruuska ’17, have also used the printer for their own pursuits. Ruuska was able to print a phone case for himself using open source designs from the Internet.

Although Eustis and Ruuska have been successful in the lab, the process of 3D printing—from the design software to the printed objects themselves—is still very much in development.

“It’s an emerging technology,” said Ruuska. “People are still finding new uses for it.”

For those interested, there are several other 3D printers on campus. Though some may be open in the future, none are currently available for general use.