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Grad student creates 3-D printer to expand architectural design possibilities

Published July 5, 2012

When 3-D comes to mind, most people think of movies. However, recent Master of Architecture graduate Dusty Austin doesn’t stop there. In his last year at NDSU, Austin designed and built a 3-D printer.

His custom-made printer lets him print objects layer by layer, until he has a raised object. When a file is finished printing, it is a hard, white, plastic 3-D object. For example, Austin has the potential to print any ordinary object, like a bowl or even a doorknob.

Despite the many practical uses it can achieve, Austin’s printer has only been used to expand his architectural design possibilities, something he could not do with the laser printers and other tools provided by the Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

“This is our student ingenuity at work, where they create their own design tool that further enhances their design abilities,” said Ganapathy Mahalingam, interim chair of the Department of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. “Talent, resourcefulness and skill are all brought to bear in a dramatic fashion, as students create their own set of tools, expanding what they can do in architectural design.”

Three-D printing is a process of making three 3-dimensional solid objects from a digital file. It is accomplished by laying down successive layers of material. Austin uses polyactic acid to make his objects. Polyactic acid is used as a plastic material that has a low melting point, which makes it easy to print. This product also does not get exceedingly hot when printing or omit fumes associated with other printing materials. But the best part about polyactic acid, according to Austin, is that “Polyactic acid biodegrades in three years, so you can throw out or bury whatever you just printed.”

Austin’s machine is set up so he can print up to 7 1/2 inches cubed; however, he can make a bigger printing space if he wants to. With those dimensions, Austin primarily uses the printer to make models of buildings of potential employers, as well as making new parts as upgrades to his printer. For a job interview he had in St. Paul he printed the building of the firm where he was interviewing. “I use the models in my interviews as a conversational piece, in hopes that it will spark their interest.”  

To create the printer, Austin used hardware store products and purchased the electronics from online sources, all for around $500. The idea to build it came from videos and designs from, where he was able to duplicate a model shown on the website.

Once the printer was created, by downloading software from, Austin was able to create objects to print. With the software, Austin has total control over how the object will look. He can adjust each layer of an object by changing the density or fill to determine the size or shape of each object.

The website Thingiverse also is where Austin gets ideas or files to print new parts as upgrades or parts to make his printer bigger. “There is an entire community that’s dedicated to building printers and helping others build their own objects from them.”

Because this a new concept to most people, when Austin was creating the printer, he decided to show others step by step how the process works, so he created a series of YouTube videos for others to follow. 3-D printers are more commonly seen in Europe and Asia than in the U.S. In fact, China is the only country as of now to have a personal 3-D printer for sale. While these printers slowly are making their way into the market, it is still less expensive to make a printer, like Austin did, than to buy one.

“Right now, the people who are creating printers are just making objects for fun. One day though, a company will have parts or objects files to download and people can print things without having to drive to a store to get them.”

In fact, Austin envisions something bigger for this 3-D idea. “I see everyone having a 3-D printer in their home, just like any other home printer.” 


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Last Updated: Thursday, August 08, 2013 8:33:23 AM