Bright Students Making Smart Machines

University of Virginia uses hands-on learning. Students get to see theory and their creativity come to life by using Stratasys 3D printers.

UVA  students working on solutionsOh, how I wish I had the experience offered in University of Virginia’s (UVA) mechanical and aerospace engineering program. Unlike its students, I graduated with no sense of the practical aspects of engineering and manufacturing. I entered the workforce with a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering but no practical appreciation of tolerances or manufacturing methods.

And I am envious. Back in 1981, 3D printing didn’t exist, so I didn’t have the tools to make my designs come to life or see the error of my ways.

UVA student working with 3D printed partsUVA’s program is different. It is one of the best in the U.S., in part because of its commitment to hands-on learning. Students get to see theory and their creativity come to life by using one of six uPrint 3D printers or a Fortus 3D production system. In hours, they discover if their designs flop or succeed.

“3D CAD modeling and theoretical models are only part of the process — there must be a concrete application for the concepts students are learning,” said Dwight Dart, design lab engineer at UVA’s rapid prototyping lab.

The hands-on curriculum is a key component of UVA’s mechatronic projects, which combines mechanical, electronic, computer, software and control engineering with systems-design engineering to imagine and manufacture useful products. The results are smart machines, like programmable printers, which students construct with 3D-printed parts.

In conjunction with Rolls Royce, a UVA partner, students also used the Stratasys machines to create scale-model Rolls Royce jet engines. Powered by compressed air and assembled with all of the functional parts of a real engine, students experienced an entire design and engineering project from beginning to end.

“We couldn’t have accomplished that level of realism without the Stratasys 3D Printer,” Dart said.

He continued, “Our partners at Rolls Royce have praised UVA graduates for immediately understanding crucial design concepts and knowing how to fix design errors,” Dart said. “The Stratasys 3D Printer is a huge part of how we teach students to build smart machines.”

If I had that practical experience in my engineering curriculum, I may have avoided nasty confrontations with the machine shop manager at my first job — confrontations over ridiculous tolerances and unmakeable designs.

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