Iowa State freshmen build multidisciplinary research, 3D printing technology experience

Connor Theisen and Heather Murphy conduct structural strength research on a blue 3D-fabricated

Industrial engineering freshman Connor Theisen and mechanical engineering freshman Heather Murphy conduct structural strength research on a blue 3D-fabricated passive damping element. A passive damping element reduces vibrations in buildings.

Three freshman honors students used 3D printing technology and more to conduct structural engineering research with Simon Laflamme, assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at Iowa State University.

Students involved in the project were mechanical engineering freshman Heather Murphy, pre-industrial design freshman Derek Coulter, and industrial engineering freshman Connor Theisen. They participated in a project that the National Science Foundation awarded Laflamme in 2013. Students fabricated structural parts using a 3D printer, a process that would otherwise be very expensive and difficult using conventional fabrication methods. In particular, structural parts, like the passive damping element pictured above, have been designed to reduce vibrations in buildings.

Each undergraduate student in Laflamme’s group was involved with all of the components of research: from thinking to analysis of data and reporting. “This way, they got a good idea of what is expected in the world of research,” Laflamme said. “Students learned to work in a group, how to communicate results, and to develop an intellectual curiosity.”

Coulter said his expectations were “shattered” while conducting the research experience. “The experience to design something real so early is something that will give me an edge as I move on in college and into a career of designing products,” he said.

Murphy was excited about seeing results of what she and other students spent so many hours doing. “It wasn’t just on paper, and we did something beneficial to the future,” she said.

Laflamme’s students took advantage of the Iowa State University First-Year Honors Mentor Program. This program partners faculty mentors with Iowa State honors students to experience research first-hand. “We involve college freshmen to provide them with an opportunity to get a valuable research experience,” Laflamme said. “They are also highly encouraged to bring creative solutions to the table, which empowers them with great problem management skills.”


  1. I have had a hard look at what this 3D printing is all about recently, seeing or reading all the fanfare about how it will revolutionize production etc. The reason I was and am critical is that most “rugged” products do not consist of parts that are amenable to “printing” processes but require furnaces and presses with the power of tons of pressure to make a part. And indeed the current hype reminds me of how I once sat down on a director’s chair in a showroom that a showroom decorator had set up in a shopfront for a beach scene. the “chair” collapsed … almost from breathing at it. I then began to understand that decorators in this field use props that are deceivingly looking like the “real thing” but are all “smoke and mirrors” and the joints are made with safety pins hidden behind a fold. Many of the 3D prints have a similar property: they are models made from materials that can be “cast” easily via the printer extrusion process, but are not therefore the “real thing”. So far, homogenous parts, like plastic duct pipes etc., can be made that would conform to the same standards as the industrial produce, but most items that e.g. NEED implements of titanium or surface-ameliorated steel etc. can not be “printed” and will not be in a long while. So printing spare parts on a space station makes sense because a part that costs pennies “on earth” costs pounds in transport. But that does not yet mean, the same part would be competitive on earth as long as it is not a single item for a vintage car etc.

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