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  5. The next dimension: 3D color printer wins innovation competition

The next dimension: 3D color printer wins innovation competition

photo of students

Charles Haider and Cédric Kovacs-Johnson. Photo: Brett Stepanik.

Spectrom, an attachment for 3D printers that will allow users to incorporate seamless, on-demand color into the 3D printing process, won both the $10,000 Schoofs Prize for Creativity and the $2,500 Tong Prototype Prize at the 20th annual Innovation Days competition. 

The competition, which rewards undergraduates for creative and marketable ideas, was held Feb. 13 and 14 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The next great technology of our generation that will see the change to color is 3D printing,” says Cédric Kovacs-Johnson. 

Kovacs-Johnson and Charles Haider, both chemical engineers, created the winning invention for color 3D printing. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of using a digital model to create a three-dimensional object, and has been used for applications ranging from prototyping architectural designs and biotechnology to jewelry and fashion.

Spectrom is specifically designed to work with fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers, which are the most viable consumer 3D printers, thanks to their ease of use and lower cost of materials. Unlike the current state of the art in FDM color printing, which is limited to the spools of pre-dyed plastic filament, Spectrom delivers solvent dyes directly to clear plastic filament in a continuous, on-demand process. This allows a 3D printer to mix colors and function more like an inkjet printer, unlocking the full rainbow of vibrant colors to 3D printed objects.

Possible applications of Spectrom include creating color-matched prosthetics. Whereas currently, doctors hand-mold prosthetic body parts, such as noses, then afterward, an artist matches a patient's skin tones, Kovacs-Johnson and Haider envision the process taking far less time and money. “With 3D printing you have the ability to scan someone’s face and build an exact face profile,” says Kovacs-Johnson. “You can then print off, using Spectrom, a nose that would match their skin exactly.”

Color also can be used in prototyping to set a design apart or add clarity for clients. “One of the things when you’re doing prototyping is that you’re looking to highlight specific, complex features,” says Haider. “Being able to bring clarity to the parts that are unique—while in meetings with clients and upper-level management—that’s where we have an advantage.”

This year, the 20th anniversary of the event, winners were selected from a field of 18 different inventions from 27 students. Event judge Jerold Jacover told participants that inventions don’t need to be radically different from products already on the market to be innovative. “To be successful, you only have to be a little bit better than your competition,” he says. “Even if it’s just a little bit better, people will pursue something that’s better.”

Several UW-Madison engineering alumni sponsor the Innovation Days competitions. Chemical engineering alumnus Richard J. Schoofs sponsors the Schoofs Prize for Creativity, electrical and computer engineering alumnus Peter P. Tong (via the Tong Family Foundation) sponsors the Tong Prototype Prize, mechanical engineering alumnus Chad Sorenson sponsors the Sorenson Design Notebook award, and electrical and computer engineering alumnus Matt Younkle sponsors the Younkle Best Presentation award.

At the awards ceremony, Schoofs had kind words for all the participants. He referenced two-time Schoofs Prize winner and judge of this years competition Tom Gerold, who has commercialized a product that he entered into an Innovation Days competition but did not win with, saying that invention proved a good example for those inventions which did not win prizes this year. "If you do not win today, do not think that you have lost. Yours might still be a project worth pursuing."

Other Schoofs Prize winners include:

Second place and $7,000: Trunk Respirator, a lightweight, compact mask system that filters out airborne pollution and uses an LED light to indicate a proper seal. Invented by Max Bock-Aronson, who graduated from the mechanical engineering department December, 2013.

Third place and $4,000: Night Watch, the combination of a wearable device and an autonomous phone application that sends out a distress signal and the user’s geographic location to the police and a user-defined distress network in dangerous situations such as an attack or an accident. Invented by electrical engineering senior Alex Gabourie, engineering physics senior Brad Gundlach and mechanical engineering senior Jason Reinecke.

Fourth place and $1,000: The Band Wagon, a collapsible bicycle cart that allows the user to tow a relatively large volume of items and materials. Invented by freshmen Michael Fix and Katrina Ruedinger.

Other Tong Prototype Prize winners include:

Second place and $1,250: The Band Wagon.

Third place and $700: Drip Drop, a monitoring and collection device that wirelessly transmits real-time data about irrigation conditions on farms, allowing decision-makers to better manage water resources. Invented by biomedical engineering senior Kyle Anderson, mechanical engineering junior Steve Berg, mechanical engineering seniors Logan Hietpas and Kevin Ripley, senior in economics Ross McCaig, and civil and environmental engineering senior Chris Stiles.

Additional prize winners include:

Sorenson Best Design Notebook Award and $1,000: Trunk Respirator.

Younkle Best Presentation Award and $1,000: Yortee, a customized golf tee with a wide middle section to incorporate advertising or a custom logo. Invented by biological systems engineering senior Justin Vannieuwenhoven. 

John Steeno