3D Printing Creates Research Opportunities at Alma College

Victor Argueta-Diaz, assistant professor of physics, didn’t know that his first year as a full-time faculty member at Alma College would begin a series of 3D printing projects that would lead Alma students to conference presentations and published research papers.


Victor Argueta-Diaz with Alma College's 3D printer Victor Argueta-Diaz with Alma College's 3D printer

In Argueta’s seminar courses students identify and create individual capstone projects. One group of students decided they wanted to focus on prosthetics. The students used the college’s first 3D printer to print basic prosthetic hands. That first group of students printed basic prosthetic hands.

During the following semester two more of Argueta’s students, Cameron Spitzfaden and Hope Ayers, decided to continue the 3D prosthetic hand project and study how to make the prosthetic hand more functional and controllable by the user.

Victor Argueta-Diaz shows the basic prosthetic hand to guests at the St. Andrews Dinner. Victor Argueta-Diaz shows the basic prosthetic hand to guests at the St. Andrews Dinner.

They worked on their project for the next two years, ultimately devising a prosthetic hand that was responsive to electrical signals in the user’s muscles. Using technology similar to an EKG, they developed electrodes that detected impulses from the user’s arm muscles and allowed the user to control the 3D hand. Spitzfaden and Ayers presented their research at academic conferences.  

After Spitzfaden and Ayers graduated, Argueta thought the 3D printing had run its course. But, to his surprise, one more student, Durham Basso, wished to continue on with the project. Basso took Spitzfaden and Ayers’ research further and began testing prototypes with actual users. He shadowed Ladd Lorenz, who specializes in prosthetics, to better understand how prosthetics work and what the needs of the users are. Basso used that experience, combined with Spitzfaden and Ayers’ research, to test prototypes on Alma College students. Basso went on to major in physical therapy and specializes in prosthetics. All three students co-authored a paper with Argueta titled, ‘Evaluation of a Low Cost Prosthetic Hand Controlled by Surface EMG Sensors and Vibrotactile Feedback’. It was published in the Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, Humanitarian Engineering, and Social Entrepreneurship.

The prosthetic hand project promoted multidisciplinary learning. The students, who were mainly focusing on physics and pre-engineering, took anatomy courses where they could examine cadaver hands to ensure their prosthetics functioned as much like human hands as possible. Another courses which spans multiple disciplines is the Monster Workshop Course [link to story], where students combine skills in physics and art to create “monsters” that react and engage with their environment.

Compliant mechanism used by Victor Argueta in his optical switch research. Compliant mechanism used by Victor Argueta in his optical switch research.Argueta is optimistic that there are more opportunities for students to develop their own 3D printing projects. Meanwhile, several faculty projects are ongoing. Argueta is using the 3D printer to create molds for one piece compliant mechanisms (flexible mechanisms that transfer an input force at one port to an output force at another port through elastic movements), which are then cut in microdimensions using a laser cutter, and used in optical switches.

Devin Camenares, assistant professor of biochemistry and Alma’s International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM) coordinator, has developed a 3D printed centrifuge that is based on a fidget spinner toy and is powered by a drill. The printed centrifuge allows students to do biochemistry work they may not otherwise be able to do, as the printed centrifuge is extremely inexpensive. 

Dave Clark, professor of biology, has been 3D printing bird beaks and feet to allow students to see them up close and to better understand the mechanics and movement of birds’ bodies.

Story published on August 01, 2019