Fall 2012 Magazine
The Data Age
With finals approaching last spring, junior Ben Rothman had more on his mind than exams. Around midnight each night, he trekked through the subbasement of the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center to a prototyping lab. He plugged a flash drive containing his self-designed digital map of the Evanston campus into a computer attached to a sleek, hatched-door, silver machine. He filled the machine with white powder from a nearby bucket and pressed Print.
While Rothman slept, the device went to work on a small plate, laying down layer upon layer of powder, ink, and adhesive. From the layers emerged tiny replicas of the Technological Institute surrounded by rows of bike racks; tennis courts, complete with bleachers and lights; and three miniature fountainheads poking out from Northwestern’s lagoon. After two weeks of nightly outputs, a five-foot-wide scale model of the entire Evanston campus in three dimensions was complete.
Northwestern University in 3DMcCormick undergraduate Ben Rothman gives an overview of his 3D model of the Northwestern University campus.
“I tried to make the buildings as accurate as possible,” says Rothman (EECS ’14), “down to the placement of the windows and doors.”
Gone are the days of foam core, razor blades, and modeling by hand. The cutting-edge manufacturing technique known as “additive manufacturing” (or more colloquially, 3D printing) can now transform digital files into three-dimensional objects. McCormick’s 3D Systems Z450 is capable of churning out perfect scale models in a fraction of the time of traditional methods, depositing thousands of 0.1-millimeter-thick layers on top of one another until objects take shape.
While still in its infancy, 3D printing is part of a larger trend of “smart manufacturing” that promises to be one of the great technological transformations of our time. In a January 30 Wall Street Journal op-ed, Dean Julio M. Ottino and McCormick Advisory Council member Mark P. Mills argued that smart manufacturing will be as transformative to this century as electricity and automobiles were to the last. One day, they wrote, we will achieve “the Holy Grail: ‘desktop’ printing of entire final products from wheels to even washing machines.”
Rothman doesn’t shy away from new technology; he’s been drawn to it
all his life. “When I was little, I always wanted to know how things worked on the inside, taking apart my toys and often failing to put them back together,” he recalls. “My dad, a lawyer, talks about how he directed my brother and me toward technology by always buying the latest gadgets and passing down his old ‘toys’ to us.” Rothman would spend hours playing computer games like Math Blaster and Dr. Brain; by his freshman year at Northwestern, he says, he was “wasting” 20 hours a week playing video games. “I decided I would try to do something more productive with that time,” he says.
Over winter break at his parents’ Wilmette, Illinois, home, using the sandbox-style video game Minecraft—where blocks are arranged to build landscapes, towns, even entire recreations of Star Trek's Starship Enterprise—Rothman started building a virtual copy
of his on-campus residence, Slivka Residential College.
“I thought, Slivka looks a little lonely,” recalls Rothman, “so I guess I’ll build [neighboring residence hall Ayers] CCI. Then it was, CCI looks a little lonely; I guess I’ll build McCulloch.” Within a couple of months, Rothman, using mapping websites as a reference, had recreated on that computer program every building from the Rebecca Crown Center to the northern tip of Northwestern’s Evanston campus. He had also built the interiors of Slivka, CCI, Tech, and the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center. (The interiors were lit by torches—the only light source available in Minecraft—leaving them slightly reminiscent of dungeons.)
Rothman released an eight-minute YouTube video showcasing the project, which caught the attention of reporters at the Daily Northwestern and North by Northwestern. When Dean Ottino learned about it, he wanted to share the project with the entire McCormick community. New software makes it possible to export Minecraft files to 3D printers, and an idea was born: Rothman would turn his computer files into a scale representation of the entire campus, to be displayed at Tech.
“Technology like 3D printing will significantly change the way we shop, work, and live,” Ottino says. “At McCormick, we don’t just want to embrace these changes, we want to be at the front line. This project is one way of doing that publicly, and it’s a welcome addition to the Tech lobby.”
Completed at the end of spring semester, the model was unveiled in July at its new home between the entrances to the Ryan Auditorium in the Tech lobby. For Rothman, who is considering a career in web development, watching his hard work transformed from his computer screen to three dimensions has been gratifying.
“The fact that you can print all of Northwestern in 3D,” Rothman says,
“is just really incredible.”