Tinker lab gives designs some shape

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Photo courtesy of Nicole Germain
An engineering student using the equipment available in tinker lab.


Turning a simple idea for a product into a full-fledged prototype is one of the main goals of the tinker lab in McDonnell-Douglas Hall. The tinker lab, which contains a laser etcher, multiple 3D printers and other equipment, is extremely helpful in allowing engineering students to transform concepts into realities.

Although it is mostly engineering students that use the tinker lab, all students are welcome. However, the equipment and software in the lab is oriented towards engineering students; it helps them through the design process by providing a space to develop physical project prototypes.

Rob Caruso, a second-year mechanical engineering graduate student and one of the people that oversees the tinker lab, has seen many projects go through the design process. A few of those projects include a putter, an airplane wing and even a recyclable pen.

“Regular pens have metal and plastic, and so can’t be recycled because they are made of two different materials,” Caruso said of the pen project. “The pen that is being worked on right now is made of just one material, which could allow it to be recycled in the future.”

The wing is an extremely lightweight, wooden prototype of a real airplane wing, and the laser etcher was used to cut out the pieces required to design the wing. Most of the students that utilize the tinker lab are engineers working on their senior design projects and members of the Innovation Scholars (iScholars) program, a SLU initiative that promotes innovation and entrepreneurship across campus. iScholars is unique in that it helps students recognize a market need, create a prototype for a product that can solve the need and ultimately encourage students to market their products to companies.

“The Innovation Scholars program helps combine engineering and entrepreneurship,” Caruso said. “There are needs in the market that these students find, and then they try to improve them with their own ideas.”

Nicole Germain, the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network Grant Program Coordinator at SLU, and also one of the iScholars’ advisors, explained more about iScholars’ projects.

“The students are working on a one-year project. They teamed up based on their interests, and by May will have a final 3D product,” said Germain.

The equipment used to achieve these goals includes a laser etcher and 3D printers.

The laser etcher loads a sketch, and utilizes the sketch as a guide to cut out certain shapes or engrave images on materials. According to Caruso, the laser etcher has numerous unconventional uses that helps aid students’ projects.

The 3D printers develop fully-realized models out of digital images through various procedures. In one process the printer takes a sketch and lays down layers of melted plastic to match the design, similar to a glue gun. Another type of printer, called a polyjet printer, acts similarly to an inkjet printer. This printer also lays out plastic and then cures the plastic with light.

In addition to these high-tech, valuable pieces of machinery, there are many things in the tinker lab that are of a more conventional nature. In some of the lab’s closets are stacks of paper and even boxes of pasta that students can use to develop their designs. All in all, the tinker lab is a space to help students transform ideas into products in a myriad of ways.