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Students use 3-D printing to bring music to underprivileged children

Joey Meurer, a third-year mechanical engineering student, Sam Celentano, a third-year physics student, and Ryan Poon, a third-year mechanical engineering student (left to right) worked with UCLA’s chapter of the 3-D Printing For Everyone club to design 3D-printed ukuleles, which it plans to donate to underprivileged children. (Amy Dixon/Assistant Photo editor)

By Evan Charfauros

Feb. 12, 2018 11:16 p.m.

Updated Feb. 12 at 7:43 p.m.

A group of UCLA students will use 3-D printed instruments to teach elementary school children about the intersection of art and science.

The UCLA chapter of 3D Printing For Everyone, a national club that focuses on teaching members about 3-D printing, launched a UCLA Spark crowdfunding campaign Feb. 5. The funds will go toward a project to donate 3-D printed ukeleles to Maryvale in Rosemead, California. Maryvale, which began as an orphanage in 1856, provides care to foster youth as well as resources to disadvantaged communities. 3D4E’s project aims to show underprivileged children how 3-D printing can bridge the gap between science and the arts.

Bhav Patel, a second-year aerospace engineering student and 3D4E treasurer, aims for the club to raise $10,000 for the project. The club’s goal is to provide a ukulele for every child at Maryvale.

“We want to start to get these kids really involved (with) STEM,” Patel said. “It can apply and branch out to every single thing that you can see around you.”

Ryan Poon, a third-year mechanical engineering student and the club president, said the project is a great way to showcase how 3-D printing exists at the intersection between art and science through its applications to music and design.

“One day, 3-D printing may be applied to every field – even history, English, art – and that’s what we’re trying to show to the children at (Maryvale),” Poon said.

3D4E’s printers are too small to build a full ukulele, so third-year mechanical engineering student, and 3D4E vice president and project leader Joey Meurer had his team design the instrument in four separate parts. The head, the neck, the top of the base and the bottom of the base slot together and are held in place with super glue. When the club members visit Maryvale, they plan to teach each child how to assemble the ukuleles alongside a presentation from Poon about the design process and the applications of 3-D printing.

To manufacture a ukulele piece, the printers use filament made of polylactic acid, a sturdy biodegradable plastic, as “ink.” The printer deposits several layers of plastic on a platform until the layers add up into a 3-D shape. The assembly process for one piece can take up to nine hours, as each layer is paper-thin.

Meurer said the team gathered design details for the first ukulele model from images online. From there, the team built 12 different versions of the instrument until it achieved one that sounded authentic.

“Things have to be perfect or you’ll be able to tell,” Meurer said. “The distance between every fret on the fret board is down to the tenth of a millimeter precision.”

The various iterations allowed for several design discoveries along the way: A teardrop-shaped ukulele fits better on the printing platform than one with the traditional base shaped like a figure eight, and the strings don’t play the right notes when stretched to the wrong length. Poon said the latest improvement to the model involved shortening the distance between the strings and the frets to make playing more comfortable.

The current print model doesn’t include strings or tuning pegs because the club can’t print them with its current technology – plastic doesn’t have the necessary material properties to create the strings’ sound, and plastic pegs aren’t strong enough to hold the strings at the tension required, Meurer said. Instead, the club will buy the pieces to add to the ukuleles after printing.

The club will coordinate a date to travel Maryvale depending on the success of its fundraiser, which ends March 5. The fundraiser’s success will affect how quickly and efficiently the ukuleles can be produced. Poon said if the Spark fund is fully successful, the club expects to visit Maryvale during week four of spring quarter.

“We’re using the ukuleles as an instrument – no pun intended – to bring about a greater goal,” Meurer said.

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Evan Charfauros
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