Designing and Creating in 3D

Students bring ideas to life in the machine shop

by Elise Gibson

Eric Jensen of Smith College guides students in the fine art of creating in 3D.

When Eric Jensen went to college to get a degree in mechanical engineering, he brought with him machine-shop experience and a way with tools. Not so his classmates.

“The first thing I saw in college was a lack of hands-on experience,” he said. “When I went to work I had an immediate leg up because I understood engineering documentation and the manufacturing side.”

For a week during January interterm, Jensen, who manages the Center for Design and Fabrication, did his part to make sure Smith students know their way around a working shop. He teamed up with engineering lecturer Susannah Howe to teach “Applied Design and Prototype,” a whirlwind, one-credit course in designing and building a three-dimensional prototype. In four days, students designed an object, created all the drawings and plans, and then created the object, using a arsenal of machinery, from traditional lathes to up-to-the-minute laser cutters and rapid prototype machinery.

To take the course, students had to be familiar with computer-aided design programs, such as AutoCAD or SolidWorks, both of which were taught in the weeks before the design class. Because of their usefulness, Howe hopes that all three classes—AutoCAD, SolidWorks, and prototyping—will be taught every January. “We’re giving them another tool for their toolbox of skills,” said Howe, who also directs a design clinic for senior engineering majors.

To simplify things, the instructors initially planned to assign every student to make the same object, a mobile. Instead, they let students’ imaginations run free. “It was wild and exciting,” Howe said. One student created a balancing sculpture, another a set of bookends shaped like Ford Hall, another a multilevel puzzle.

The course takes the students from idea to sketch to feasibility review to computer design to the shop, where, if all the planning is correct, the student emerges with a model of a greenhouse or a picnic shelter or a concept car. “It was the best credit I’ve earned at Smith,” said one student in her evaluation.

“We’re not training them to be machinists, but it helps if they can talk the language of manufacturing,” Jensen said. “We can add a lot of value to their degree.”

Summer ’09 SAQ