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Students Experience RAPID + TCT Show

By Kusha Sharma Western Washington University
The Vent Buddy is a smart, adjustable vent phone mount that was designed and produced using direct digital manufacturing.

AS A TEAM OF FOUR MANUFACTURING engineering undergraduate students from Western Washington University (Bellingham, WA), we had our minds blown within seconds of walking onto the RAPID + TCT show floor when we attended the event, April 23-26, in Fort Worth, TX. Hundreds of industry-leading additive manufacturing companies—Hewlett-Packard, 3D Systems, Stratasys, Desktop Metal and Autodesk, to name a few—showcased their products, opening our eyes to the different directions manufacturing technology is going in and manufacturing’s infinite possibilities.

We were able to attend RAPID + TCT because our team entered and won SME’s 2018 Digital Manufacturing Challenge with a product we designed and named the Vent Buddy. Our goal with the design was to meet several objectives: no driver vision obstruction, no residue left anywhere on the dash or windshield, and the ability to hold a cell phone securely in place.

The Vent Buddy is designed to clip into the air vent in an automobile and grip a cell phone, while offsetting it from the air vent to prevent the phone from blocking airflow from the vent. Because the ribbing in air vents vary greatly between some car makes or models, the vent clip is customizable to fit even the most odd-looking vents securely.

Attending this conference as the Digital Manufacturing Challenge winners gave us the opportunity to learn about new methods of turning our ideas into products. We found DLP printers that would be useful for printing some of the parts in our design on a small-to-medium production scale. Manufacturing our parts using stereolithography at these production rates was unheard of to us before this event.

In addition to learning more about the possible production methods for our product, we found various approaches that solved problems surrounding traditional manufacturing processes that we previously did not know how to solve. One of the fascinating machines we saw was a sand printer, allowing sand molds to be additively manufactured without requiring original parts or prototypes to create the negatives in the molds.

Before the conference, our knowledge about additive manufacturing was more on the basic level. Three-dimensional printing with plastic material was all we really knew about additive manufacturing; innovative companies like Desktop Metal showed us that we are still advancing so rapidly with brand new technologies. Previously, 3D printing with metal would have needed a large-scale production machine; now we are capable of metal 3D printing with a machine that can fit on a desktop.

Some of the brand-new machines are also capable of performing postprocessing operations on parts requiring high levels of precision and accuracy. A product can be printed and then finished all in one machine, which is usually a multimachine or multifacility process. Additive manufacturing is also going both up and down in scale. Machines are getting bigger to print larger-sized products, and resolution is getting finer to create high-detail parts on the microscale.

We are all very grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the conference and gain all kinds of knowledge from the experience. It was very inspirational and exciting to be exposed to all this technology we really had no idea existed. We encourage all eligible students to enter SME’s Digital Manufacturing Challenge ( and learn all they can about additive manufacturing!

Why Vent Buddy Won SME’s 2018 Digital Manufacturing Challenge

(The following is an explanation by one of the challenge judges as to why the Vent Buddy was selected as the winner of SME’s 2018 Digital Manufacturing Challenge.)

The Vent Buddy is a design that utilized additive manufacturing and the material properties available through innovative design. Every year, SME’s Direct Digital Manufacturing Tech Group receives many submissions, and some of them are the result of an assignment. Others are clearly the result of a group of students who have been exposed to what is possible and then set loose to see how they can apply additive manufacturing—the Vent Buddy is a great example of this.

Our winners chose to utilize the freedom of design to enable a “one-size-fits-all” device for a cell phone. Utilizing design features, they could make a product that would utilize interference fits to give functionality to the product. The students evaluated a “need” for automobile drivers and utilized their design to make this a low-cost solution. They evaluated the economics of additive manufacturing and presented the cost structure to support their argument and the viability of the product. We always look for a product that has been evaluated for market viability, economic justification in addition to the use of additive manufacturing and additive-manufacturing-related design freedom.

We look forward to seeing new entries in the coming year. Even after a decade, our judges continue to enjoy reviewing the entries from both university and high school students.

—Carl Dekker, an SME member since 1993, is the co-chair of SME’s Direct Digital Manufacturing Tech Group and the president of Met-L-Flo, Inc. (Sugar Grove, IL).

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