3D printed lightsabers

The first mechanical engineering course CU Denver students take teaches them how to do 3D modeling with computer-aided design (CAD). In fall 2017, the course (MECH 1025) got a “Star Wars”-themed upgrade, which will teach students to integrate multiple skills – as they build their own lightsabers.

Usually around 8 inches long, the lightsabers are made of 15 parts that fit together and sit on a laser-cut stand. Building them requires 3D-modeling skills, as well as technical know-how for using 3D printers and laser cutters.

At first, most students think the project will be impossible, but last semester 86 of 90 students completed the project. The work prepares students for future engineering work, including building rapid and inexpensive prototypes. And the creator of the best lightsaber got tickets to see the new “Star Wars” movie.

“When I first started teaching this class four semesters ago, we didn’t have any 3D printers,” said Sam Mills, the PhD student who teaches a section of the class in the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “So, first the department ordered a bunch of 3D printers, which was awesome, and then we had to figure out a project to do with them. Since the new ‘Star Wars’ movie was coming out, we figured this would be a good way to work some of this in there.”

New skills for new technologies

A relatively new technology, 3D printing is rapidly becoming one of the most integral skills in engineering. Some printers are inexpensive to operate and can be maintained by the people who work with them, while others create extremely high-quality products at a high cost. Both types of printers require the same skills to operate.

So, when students complete their lightsabers, they have the skills to create both inexpensive prototypes and parts that can be used in completed products. Through these hands-on projects, they also learn how to create successful designs, in spite of the fact that 3D-printing technology isn’t yet perfect.

“Even if you design something perfectly on a computer, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to work out perfectly in real life,” Mills said.

During the project, they discover how theoretical design translates to the real world and how to design things with the maximum chance of success. They have to understand not only each individual skill, but how those skills fit together.

Preparing students for future success

Because 3D printing is becoming such a ubiquitous part of the engineering world, students need these skills even during their undergraduate education. Giving students this training early on means that when they get to their Senior Design Competition, they have not only access to 3D printers but the skills needed to operate them.

This is a lot to learn, and most students initially find the prospect daunting. They soon find, however, that the lightsaber project is the perfect combination of fun, challenge and realistic goal. They get a specific set of parameters, and they must design it so that it fits together without glue. At the end of the semester, each student gets to take home a lightsaber.

Hands-on work like this project motivates students to get through their more difficult and math-centric courses, because they have a reminder of the future fun they can have in mechanical engineering.

“The next few classes after this have a lot of math, so people can also think back to this class and know that it gets better,” Mills said.

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