MakerBot Stories | A University’s Year of Innovation

When Katherine Wilson decided to apply to graduate school, she looked at what technologies she’d get to use. At the art school at the State University of New York at New Paltz, she said, “I knew there was a strong 3D printing base.”

In her last semester, New Paltz built on that base by opening a MakerBot Innovation Center in the basement of the arts building. With access to 30 MakerBot Replicator 3D Printers, Wilson could experiment as never before.

A year later, Wilson is still at New Paltz, one of three new employees 3D printing with students as well as with local entrepreneurs and companies. “I get to see people realize dreams and goals that they’ve had for years,” says Wilson, now the assistant director of the Hudson Valley Advanced Manufacturing Center. “I get to see students learn new techniques and develop as artists and engineers.”

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In only a year, the MakerBot Innovation Center has had a profound impact on New Paltz students and faculty. It enabled New Paltz to offer a new mechanical engineering major and a two-semester certificate in design and digital fabrication. Ten New Paltz students work in the MakerBot Innovation Center as interns, helping area entrepreneurs to develop their concepts and bring them to market.

Inspired by Snow

Take Rob Kunstadt, a patent lawyer who had an idea for a construction material that, like snow, is light and loose until it’s packed together, and then it locks up like cement. To test and prove his concept, Kunstadt needed more than a thousand hollow dodecahedra — 12-sided shapes.

Kunstadt spent two days in his own shop cutting PVC pipe with a drill press and a band saw, then spent $300 to get the pieces tumbled and smoothed. Still, he could only approximate his desired shape. “There’s no way you’re going to machine a dodecahedron,” he said. “You either need molding or 3D printing.”

The 3D print services he found quoted a price of $1 per dodecahedron — or $1,500 for 1,500 pieces. An injection mold would cost $10,000, and require a minimum run of tens of thousands of pieces. Injection molding might eventually be more economical, but Kunstadt didn’t even know if his idea would work yet, and didn’t want to waste precious capital.

“People starting businesses have very little funds,” he says. “Whatever they can save will make their resources go further. You’ve got to try a lot of things.”

Then Kunstadt saw a local newspaper story about the MakerBot Innovation Center at New Paltz, about 40 minutes south of his home in Woodstock. New Paltz gave Kunstadt a quote of 30 cents apiece, or about $400 for 1,500 pieces. Not only were the MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3D Printers at New Paltz able to cheaply make the shape he wanted, but the dodecahedra were 35% lighter than the ones Kunstadt could make himself.

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What’s more, the ease of visiting the New Paltz campus eliminates the challenges of working with vendors in China: remote communication, expensive misunderstandings. Kunstadt, who has worked with inventors for 35 years, sees “a huge benefit” in having a MakerBot Innovation Center nearby.

Funding Yields More Funding

Initial funding for New Paltz’s MakerBot Innovation Center came quickly, in the form of two $250,000 grants, from a local foundation and an individual philanthropist. “We took those pieces, built a curriculum, got started on things,” says New Paltz President Donald Christian. “And with that momentum were able to build into a SUNY 2020 grant.” The $10 million challenge grant is paying for a new engineering building and innovation hub. New Paltz had applied unsuccessfully for SUNY 2020 funding once before, and the MakerBot Innovation Center helped put their application over the top this time.

The MakerBot Innovation Center has had a “remarkable impact on our campus, on our students, on the way we are perceived in the region and many of the ways we interact with and support the Hudson Valley in New York,” says Christian.

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Throughout the year, President Christian meets with groups of New Paltz students to ask and answer questions. He wants to know what they like best. At one of these gatherings, a young man glowed about his internship at the MakerBot Innovation Center. As Christian tells it, the student said, “‘It’s so cool for me to work on a real-world problem that industry wants us to solve, and I’m working with other students.’ And, he said, ‘I’m a first-year engineering major. I never would have guessed that I would have an experience like this in my first year.’”

The rest of New Paltz has also been pleased. “3D is new enough, exciting enough, innovative enough that that in and of itself has brought more focus to the institution beyond 3D,” Christian says.

“Businesses, academia, media, the general public, government officials — all of those folks are now being pulled into SUNY New Paltz,” adds Laurence Gottlieb, CEO of the Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation. “This is exactly what we wanted to happen.”

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