Our Field Trip to PicoTurbine: 3D printers, prosthetics, and more

Apr 06, 2017

Hannah Chessman Bw By Hannah Chessman

What were you doing in fourth grade? Probably not building a 3D printed prosthetic aid for a classmate who was born without a hand, I bet.

Last week, a few of us on the Print The Future team got to visit a company called PicoTurbine International, who recently partnered with eight Jersey City Public Schools to create an education program focused on doing just that.

Allow me to set the scene.

The weather was beautiful in New York. The sun had thawed most of the snow, and we were finally able to leave our heavy coats at home. It was the perfect day for a field trip. Around noon Neil, Victor, and I hopped in a cab, and in less than 30 minutes, we had made it to Kearny Point.

We pulled up at Building 78, an old Navy warehouse and shipbuilding shed, clad in original brick with new corrugated metal accents and large paned glass windows that manage to make this heavy, old building feel fresh and new on the inside.

Building 78 is the first building to be redeveloped in a master plan that includes over 3 million square feet of industrial space in Kearny, New Jersey. Historically, this area served as a massive shipbuilding operation during World War I and World War II with over 30,000 employees working on site.

If you’ve ever been to the Brooklyn Navy Yard or Industry City, it’ll be something like that: tons of indoor and outdoor public spaces, modern office buildings offering “flex spaces” for small businesses and larger spaces for established brands, parks, and event spaces that will bring thousands of innovators, creatives, and entrepreneurs together in one place.

Michael Rodriquez, Communications Manager at PicoTurbine, met us in the modern, light-filled lobby and guided us up to the PicoTurbine space on the second floor. I made sure to gracefully knock over a Thomas Heatherwick designed Spun chair on my way.

PicoTurbine began in a dorm room in 2008, where founder Michael Burghoffer and a couple of his peers started off as hobbyists making wind turbines. Since then, they’ve maintained their emphasis on sustainability and diversified to offer public and educational services focusing on alternative energy, rapid prototyping and computer-aided design.

The first PicoTurbine STEAM Rocks Education Center - the one we visited - opened in September of 2015. 

Nowadays, 3D printing accounts for about 60% of PicoTurbine’s business with a primary focus on educating teachers. Since 2015, they’ve hosted many successful open house events, professional development sessions, and class trips at their STEAM Center.

When we got inside, Damian Nodal, Director of 3D Printing, showed us around the space. There’s really a lot to see, including an original brick wall in the back; a collection of hydroponic plant systems with a couple of pet goldfish residing in the water tank; rows of wood tables and chairs that they made themselves; and dozens of 3D printed knick-knacks, experiments, and prototypes that the team has worked on over the years.

And, of course, there is a large selection of 3D printers in various shapes and sizes, including the nearly 10 foot tall (3 meters) DeltaWASP 3MT that we first saw at the Inside 3D Expo the previous week.

In case you missed it – last week on the blog, we told the story of how we met PicoTurbine and WASProject at the Inside 3D Expo and borrowed one of their WASP printers to share with our community at the NYC pop-up shop.

They joked that everyone in the building stops by to check out their space. I can’t say that I’m surprised, but I also think it’s quite an achievement in a place like this. We only went on a quick tour and passed by a digital marketing company, a fashion designer, and a winemaker. Even a popular tech YouTuber has office space in the building!

My favorite though - and maybe the PicoTurbine guys’ too (I heard something about volunteer taste testing) - was just two doors down: a start-up company developing a Keurig-style frozen yogurt machine for the home. If there’s a Kickstarter for that, sign me up - no questions asked!

Now let’s get back to that fourth grade prosthetics program.

PicoTurbine alongside district STEM educators led eight Jersey City Public Schools in a six month long after school program to teach students the engineering design process, which is essentially a series of steps that allows engineers to come up with solutions to problems.

Students also learned about 3D printing, CAD software (computer-aided design), anatomy, and physiology. On top of all of that, the addition of humanitarian and empathetic components made this a unique success for these students and for STEAM education in general.

The program focused on developing a solution that would allow someone with a prosthetic limb to be able to perform more intricate tasks. The assignment was made more personal, as they were designing with a younger peer in mind.

Working in teams, more than 150 students put in over 50 hours of work over six months to solve this complex problem.

The tool the winning team designed, a clip that attaches to the thumb of the prosthetic to easily hold a spoon or other small items, will now be completed with additional technology to create a fully functional prosthetic. Once complete a second grade student in their district, named Chrystian, will be given the prosthetic to use. (Above pictures show a prototype of the winning team's design)

I’ll say it again - what were you doing in fourth grade? I know what I was up to, and it certainly wasn’t as inspiring and impressive as that.

To read more about the program and competition, check out some of their press coverage here and here. Or for more about PicoTurbine in general, check our their website here!

Thanks so much to the team at PicoTurbine for inviting us to visit their space and to learn more about their mission and the invaluable services they’re providing to their community! 

Inspired yet? Let us know in the new comments section below!