A new 3D Innovation Hub at Howard Community College (HCC) has been established, with the aim of providing a collaborative link between education and business. Located in one of the college’s central academic buildings, what’s known as the Hub provides students with opportunities to build objects with real-life applications, as well as offering faculty the opportunity to develop specialized models that enhance classroom instruction.

In addition, in the near future the Hub also will offer full-service 3-D printing to regional businesses.

“As business has evolved, so have the expectations for our students,” said HCC President Kate Hetherington, at the college’s ribbon cutting ceremony in May. “The Hub … will educate students on a rapidly growing field of customized additive manufacturing.”

With support from the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA), the 3D Innovation Hub builds upon HCEDA’s recent initiative that helped raise regional awareness of the new technology and its capabilities for commercial use. It includes equipment donated by HCEDA and by M3D of Fulton, a manufacturer of 3-D printers for consumers.

Second Life

In 2014, HCEDA received tasking and funding from the Howard County Council to stand up a two-year laboratory program to demonstrate how additive manufacturing could benefit businesses.

HCEDA Executive Vice President Vernon Thompson said his organization learned a few unexpected things along the way. “First, there are lot of companies out there interested in this technology,” he said. “Secondly, they weren’t all quite the industries that we thought they were.”

A lot of curiosity did come from classic manufacturing and the medical field, but drone manufacturers, lighting companies and hundreds of other unexpected business fields also wanted to learn more, he said.

The demonstration project paid other benefits by giving HCEDA the opportunity to show some of the companies how they could work together.

“It only seemed right and just at the end of the demonstration that we put that equipment, information and knowledge someplace where it can do the maximum to help the county and the residents of the county,” Thompson said. “Nothing is more fitting than to stand this laboratory up in partnership with the community college so that it has a life after [the] EDA.”

Team Sport

Speaking during the dedication ceremony, Maryland Secretary of Commerce Mike Gill said the Hub reflects the type of innovative thinking his department strives to promote.

“Think about all the pieces that have to come together for this: education, the commercial side, county government, commercialization, innovation in the broadest sense,” he said. “Economic development is a team sport. I really think [this] is an example of Howard Community College thinking differently.”

“I love the fact that the walls are glass,” said Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman. “I’m a social scientist, but even I would love to walk through and see what’s going on in there.”

The design was intentional, Hetherington said. “We want to let local businesses see this Hub as a resource and view HCC as a partner helping them develop innovative products right here in Howard County.”

HCC engineering student Kevin Moreno currently serves as the Hub’s laboratory technician, performing maintenance, trouble-shooting, working with the software and helping students edit models. He plans to transfer to the University of Maryland, College Park this fall to continue mechanical engineering studies at the Clark School of Engineering.

“The 3D Innovation Hub is an opportunity to introduce more students to 3-D printing and bring what they often see in textbooks to 3-D life,” he said. “This Hub has given me a passion for my future career and experience. It’s inspired me to think differently about how I can use 3-D printing to solve problems for the future.”

Reaching Out

Betty Noble and Athar Rafiq, who both work in the college’s Business and Computer Systems Division, are engaging with industry leaders behind the scenes to promote the college’s ability to do prototype work for them.

“We do have some size limitations right now,” Rafiq said. “Our highest limit will probably be about 12 inches three-dimensionally, with expansion.”

Aside from plastic, the Hub also features a machine that uses powder to make hard ceramic components popular with jewelry artists. “Eventually, I think we’ll be adding [other materials] as well,” he said, noting that some advanced players in the industry are already experimenting with tissue printing. “Just think, someday we could print kidneys.”

To promote learning outside of The Hub, the college has agreed to help sell M3D’s consumer printers to registered students who want one.

“They’ve given us a discount, so that every student literally can have one and afford it,” Rafiq said.

The Hub has only been operating for a short time, but it has already aided classroom instruction by producing a model of a flow cytometer, a piece of medical equipment that analyzes the physical and chemical characteristics of particles in a fluid.

“These machines cost thousands of dollars,” Hetherington said. “The learning tool that was created here cost $40. It’s amazing that you can create something here that students can learn from.”

It’s the administration’s goal to create synergies of real life between divisions to better prepare students for real-life situations in the workforce, she said.

“In the coming months, after we pilot several more projects … we will begin offering full-service consulting and printing services at a reasonable cost,” Hetherington said. “Our experienced faculty and staff will sit down, one-on-one, with business owners and entrepreneurs to turn their drawings or concepts into reality.”