“When I came to Brandeis, I thought 3D printing was science fiction,” said Gabriel Seltzer ’18 in an interview with the Justice. Then he joined Deis3D, the on-campus 3D printing club located in the MakerLab above Goldfarb Library. He recalls his early days in the club, saying, “I started making my own objects, fixing printers, and helping out … it all sort of just snowballed from there.” Today, Seltzer is the vice president of Deis3D.

This weekend Deis3D held a Printathon, an intercollegiate 3D printing competition. For twenty-four hours this Saturday, the mezzanine above Goldfarb library was packed with six teams of engineering and computer science students, almost all young men, from neighboring universities and high schools. Fueled by copious amounts of Red Bull and Dunkin coffee, each competitor appeared entranced in his or her own world, furiously typing computer programs, creating prototypes and hovering anxiously over 3D printers in an intense effort to assemble the best 3D-printed object.

“This year’s theme was called, ‘Make It Human.’ This means the 3D-printed object could be something that attaches to a human like a prosthetic or something that interfaces with a human,” Seltzer explained. Each team presented their 3D-printed object before a panel of judges who assessed each entry based on its adherence to the theme of the event, its creativity and complexity and the quality of the presentation.

This year, the first-place winner was a blue headband created from a 3D scan of someone’s head so that it fit perfectly. The band contains sound sensors that, when triggered, send small vibrations though the band to alert the person wearing it when there is noise behind them. “It’s a great idea, especially for people who are hard of hearing,” Seltzer exclaimed. “It’s a super solid project.”

Stephen Hawes, an engineering student at the University of Connecticut and one of the architects of the headband, could hardly suppress his joy when his team was announced the winner. Grinning, Hawes said, “I know it sounds cheesy, but I just had a blast here. I got to do what I love and kick ass on a project and win!” Hawes had another good reason to be excited. His team was going to back to Connecticut with a major prize: a 3D printer of their own.

As the teams packed up virtual reality headsets, PLA filaments and external hard drives, Seltzer shook hands with the contestants. Seltzer remarked, “I think the coolest thing about 3D printing is that you go from an idea to a physical thing. It’s all within your control. You say to yourself; I want to make something that helps me with a task in life, and then you dream it up, and eventually you can physically hold what was originally only an idea in your head. It’s really a powerful thing.”

Later, once the room had cleared, Seltzer admitted, “A lot of 3D printing at this level makes trinkets but not, strictly speaking, useful things. I’ve struggled with how meaningful all this is.” Of course, there are practical applications for 3D-printing that go beyond the trivial. “The 3D-printed prosthetics movement is big because 3D printing is really good at customizing things. Normally prosthetics cost between 20 to 40 thousand dollars, but 3D-printed ones are around 50 bucks. This is useful especially for children who may need a new prosthetic every year,” Seltzer explained. Unfortunately, Deis3D does not have the resources for such endeavors or to compete directly with schools with larger engineering programs. Knowing the limitations of his club, Seltzer said, “I don’t ever expect us to become a rival to MIT where we come up with new technologies. What I do expect and would love to see is a scenario where MIT creates these cool new technologies and then realize that they don’t know what to do with them, so we say ‘we’ll test out your new creation and put it to use.’ I want to see us pioneering new ways to use the technology that already exists.”

Seltzer mused, “I used to think 3D printers would become ubiquitous. Part of the problem is that it requires a certain level of tech know-how, but the primary issue is a willingness to fail. If your 2D printer jams and fails to print your homework, you get mad; you expect that printer to work the first time you try it. There is a threshold of failure for 3D printing that you need to be able to meet to overcome an obstacle and learn from it.”

Perhaps one day 3D printers will become as ubiquitous as laptops, but for now the 3D printed world belongs to more technologically adventurous people like Seltzer. The way he sees it, nobody should be afraid to walk into MakerLab and explore 3D printing. “We can be a hub for would-be engineering students on campus and say, ‘We have this tech, what do you want to do with it?”