Recreating a Lego minifigure in 3-D, down to every precisely measured ridge and notch, is remarkably complex.
“It looks easy, but once you start measuring every little thing you
realize that it’s more complicated,” says Nicolas Pham, a sophomore at
Cleveland High School. One example: Nicolas points to the peg that holds
the arm onto the torso, which has a little ridge that holds the arm
tightly and prevents it from simply sliding off the peg.
He is one of the first students in Doug Hartley’s Introduction to
Engineering and Design class to make it all the way through the process.
“I’ve had a lot of students start this project, but he’s the first one
to get it really exact,” Hartley says. “I think he’s the first one to
actually build a whole Lego man.”
he’s a student at Cleveland, Nicolas gets to test out the computer
models he made by printing out all of the pieces on the school’s 3-D
printer. Cleveland bought the 3-D printer in 2007, several years before
the high school was reimagined as a STEM (Science, Technology,
Engineering and Mathematics) option school. It is one of several middle
and high schools in the district to own one.
The printer is far more than just a whiz-bang piece of technology. “This is how they make things now,” Hartley says.
Gone are the days of model makers, who handcrafted parts based on
drawings so engineers could test how well their designs worked. These
days, they send them to a printer.
3-D printer may have arrived at Cleveland in 2007, but Nicolas says he
wouldn’t have wanted to come to the school before the STEM program was
instituted in 2010, along with Cleveland’s designation as an option
school open to every student in the district. Nicolas got his
application in on the first day to get a seat in the popular STEM
To use the printer, Nicolas sends a file from the computer. The 3-D
printer works much like an ink jet printer, but in this case an arm
sweeps over a thin layer of powder, “spraying” liquid in just the right
places. On the way back, the printer arm spreads a new thin layer of
powder over the top, ready for the next application of liquid. Layer by
layer a Lego head, two arms, two legs and a torso form.
the “printing” is done, the parts are essentially buried in the layers
of powder, and Nicolas has to dig in with his fingers to carefully
excavate the individual pieces of his Lego man.
With all of the work done on computers these days, the 3-D printer gives
students something tangible. “You need to be able to hold things
sometimes,” Hartley says.