3D Printing for Physics: Small Prints, Large Impact

James Wetzel, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the University of Iowa. Recently, Wetzel has undertaken a project to 3D print 100 1:120-scale models of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector to help people understand the experiment.

Working With – and Discovering – the Unknown

On a regular basis, James Wetzel works with materials and concepts that a large number of people have never heard of. Currently, Wetzel is collaborating on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, which investigates (and helps discover) new or hypothesized physics particles, such as the Higgs boson and particles that make up dark matter. Wetzel explains, “Many people are surprised to learn that this “compact” structure is actually five stories tall and seven stories wide. However, it is very dense – every nook and cranny has electronics in it!”

Explaining the Experiment

Physics is not an easy subject for the majority of individuals, making the CMS experiment difficult to explain. Luckily, Wetzel had an idea of how to simplify the task. “Every summer there is an outreach grant from Fermilab that you can apply for to help the public understand the research taking place. Professor Yasar Onel (PI at the University of Iowa) and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get extra funding for our program, while also doing something cool that would help the community learn about CMS. I had wanted to build a model CMS for a long time, and when 3D printers came along and became affordable, I wrote a proposal for the grant,” says Wetzel.

Small Prints, with a Large Impact

CMS Detector Parts Printed on the Afinia H480 3D Printer
Wetzel’s 3D-printed parts for the CMS model.

“At first, I started to print a fairly large model of the CMS, about two feet tall and three feet long. I was putting it together like a puzzle, with individual part size limitations due to the 5”x5”x5” build area of the 3D printers. But then I got a call from Don Lincoln, who told me that Fermilab wanted 50 smaller models to go to universities, and another 20 for others who are involved in the project, too,” explains Wetzel. “I redesigned the model so the largest single piece could be printed completely on the Afinia H480’s 5x5x5 inch build area. In total, the model is made up of about 40 pieces, some of which are small enough to print multiple of on the same build plate.”

Wetzel is very pleased with how the project has turned out. “The model has already been very helpful in explaining how the experiment works. It’s a fantastic visual aid… plus, people think it is really awesome. They are blown away and ask how I made it. People at Fermilab are going crazy about it, too! They are loving it.”

The response has been so positive, that Fermilab has added 30 more units to the original order of 70, for a total of 100 units.

Getting Started

“I had very little CAD experience,” admits Wetzel. Although he understood conceptually how it worked, he had only worked minimally with CAD before, as an undergrad. “I had a friend of mine who is a great SolidWorks/CAD guy give me strategies on how to proceed. He spent a day with me and showed me some techniques that he himself uses, in order for me to get started,” explained Wetzel. “I supplemented that with some of the built-in tutorials to understand the basics of SolidWorks, so I could make the shapes and print them.”

Choosing the Afinia 3D Printer

Afinia 3D Printers behind James Wetzel
Wetzel and part of his Afinia “3D printing army.”

“I had no 3D printing experience before the project. However, after lots of researching reviews, my dad had gotten the Afinia H480 3D printer at work for his own prototyping,” says Wetzel. “I knew from his experience that the quality of the Afinia 3D printer is a fantastic deal for the price, and decided that’s the printer I would like to use, too.”

Wetzel started playing with the Afinia 3D printer when it arrived to begin learning how it worked. “I even brought it with me to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and used it to support a short experimental program there. We simply set up the printer in the control room and started designing and printing parts to help with our test setup. 3D printing is way more useful than what I thought it could be,” explains Wetzel. “Before, we milled things, which takes very careful consideration and is expensive and labor intensive. With 3D printing, you can just set it and forget it. There’s no gluing or adding extra pieces. Just make the 3D model and print it- and that’s what you get. It’s an added bonus that the prints can be so light weight!”

Afinia All Around

CMS Detector Printed on the Afinia H480 3D Printer
Wetzel pauses printing, which allows him to change filament and create a multi-colored print.

“Between my dad and I, we have 12 Afinia 3D printers. They are working really well. The only times I have had a problem with one, it ends up being because I’m doing something stupid!” laughed Wetzel. “Other than that, I’ve had some nozzle clogs, but that is generally a simple fix, and unfortunately, to be expected when you have the printers running as often as I do.”

“The printing process to make all of these models is pretty time consuming, especially the multicolor prints which require significant babysitting, but I am also able to press print and leave many of the parts alone. I basically have 14 hours where I don’t have to do anything for a few of the parts. There has only been one time when a piece of a model broke off mid-print and jammed the machine. For how many hours I’ve put on these machines, that’s pretty good!”

Cost Effective

Completed CMS Models

“When I first thought about how many hours the project would take, I thought about sending it to a 3D printing service. However, they were asking way too much! One company quoted me around one million dollars,” Wetzel said. “Using the Afinia printers has been very cost effective. Overall, it has cost a tiny fraction of what the companies were asking for. I’ve spent a small fraction of that in raw materials.

Side Projects

Wetzel has also used his Afinia 3D printers for other projects around the lab. “I’ve printed frames for different projects, which was a good way to work on my CAD abilities. I’m also working with a group of kids this summer, and one of the kids was interested in knowing how 3D printing works. I showed him, and he got to print a couple of fun parts, which he thought was really cool.”

High-quality Prints

“One thing that I think is really awesome about the Afinia 3D Printer is its quality. We’ve printed a few things at the engineering department (where they have very costly refrigerator-sized printers) and have found that the Afinia has the same resolution as those printers. I was absolutely surprised at how precise the Afinia can be, compared to those large, expensive printers.”

Next Steps

Wetzel plans to continue his printing and prototyping enterprise, under his company, Ob Design Group. He will also be releasing the STL files for the CMS model, along with printing tips and instructions for anyone to print the CMS detector. Stay tuned at obdesigngroup.com.