In almost any field, particularly those in science and engineering, you encounter revolutionary technologies that promise faster, cheaper, and easier processes. Some of these advances, such as computers, social media, and smart technology, have changed the way an entire generation thinks and interacts with the world. What will be the next great breakthrough to transform the next generation? Many people believe it will be 3D printing. 

Think about how computers make it possible to perform time intensive tasks with a click of a button. Consider social media, which has made communication almost instantaneous, and smart technology, which has allowed anyone to retrieve information on the spot. In this same way, 3D printing has the potential to transform the way we think about product production.

3D printing at UNC-Chapel Hill

 Photo credit: Lars Sahl
Create almost anything you can imagine

Are you a student, staff, or faculty member at UNC Chapel Hill? If so, you can take advantage of FREE 3D printing right now! If you can imagine it, you can likely print it, and you can get started at UNC BeAM (Be a Maker) Campus Makerspaces.

MakerSpaces are designated areas on campus where you can print your own designs. The 3 makerspaces with 3D printing are located in Murray Hall, Hanes Art Center, and the Kenan Science Library and a 4th space is opening in Carmichael Hall in Fall 2017. The best part: printing is free thanks to a grant from the Student Library Advisory Board (SLAB).

What can you do?

Whether you need a custom part for a lab instrument or simply want to display a one-of-a-kind Pokémon figurine on your work space, 3D printing is a fast and fun way to bring products to life.

BeAm has a 3-point mission: Recreation, Research, and Education. Recreation encourages you to learn how to make things that add a touch of fun to life such as pencil cases, desk decorations, and even coffee mugs. Research is about providing researchers the ability to print instrument parts at a fraction of the cost needed to purchase them. You can also custom design parts to fit specific needs, such as adding stands or hinges. Other groups focus solely on using 3D printing to print more accessible healthcare devices or learning tools. Finally, education is about teaching you to be a maker, giving you the power to design and create whatever you need, whether for research or recreation. And as Charlie Cummings, BeAM Makerspace Program Manager, says, “It’s fun!” 

Photo credit: Lars Sahl
You can be a maker by attending the MakerSpace orientation

Want to get started yourself? Contact the Kenan Science Library ( for information on how to design a product on free software and to set up a consultation with experts who will print your design. Want to print yourself? Contact the BeAM network ( and sign up for a free orientation which will guide you on how to use the 3D printers available at all makerspace locations.

3D printer mechanics

A 3D printer makes products in a way similar to how an office printer constructs words and pictures on a page.  A 3D printer creates solid, free standing objects from a digital model by using a digital 3D picture as a blueprint. It prints by stacking thin layers of a hard material, such as plastic, on top of one another while inserting space and shape where needed.
Printing in 3D is possible by designing a digital blueprint of the object you want. The printer reads the blueprint and builds the object by progressively stacking a hard material such as plastic on top of itself

The cost of running these printers is relatively low and automation allows for maximum precision. As a result, products from simple cuvette holders to large medical devices become cheaper and easier to make while also being more accessible to a wide range of consumers. Although plastic is most commonly used due to its affordability and ease of use, materials such as metal and ceramics can also be used for 3D printing. 

Coming soon

Interested in learning more about advances in 3D printing at UNC? Stay tuned for the 3D printing series that will be published here on The Pipettepen in early Fall 2017. This series will delve deep into the ways that 3D printing has aided research, education, and science communication and outreach.

Peer edited by Amala John.

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