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Women in Engineering

Student team makes musical instrument using 3-D printing

It takes nearly four years for Hawaiian 
artisans to craft a koa wood ukulele. 
Three RIT engineering students crafted theirs overnight.

Traditional ukuleles, usually 12 to 18 inches in length, are designed with aged koa, shaped and formed by hand and polished to show off fine wood grains. Palm trees and hula come to mind after just a few strums of the strings. 

Betsy Khol, Jeet Mehta and Joe Noble came pretty close to that feeling. They set down layer upon layer of thin-plastic filament to print a version of the familiar Hawaiian instrument, part of a project in Denis Cormier’s Rapid Prototyping class. The engineering professor’s assignment, while whimsical, was to build an orchestra, taking advantage of state-of-the-art rapid prototyping and 3-D printing equipment 
in RIT’s Brinkman Lab. 

“Our goal was to have something that was just one piece, so that there was no 
assembly required. Because it was so small to begin with, we could scale it to a size of the true instrument and hope that it would still play,” says Khol, an industrial and 
systems engineering student. 

Rapid prototyping and the use of print terminology are often confusing to people new to the process, says Khol, from Vienna, Va. Most are familiar with the process of printing onto paper. In rapid prototyping, sometimes referred to as additive manu­facturing, the general idea of printing 
remains the same, but the materials used and the products produced are different.

Khol’s team used a computer-aided design program to first scale an electronic image 
of the ukulele and input the specifications into the 3-D printer. Using nano-ink, 
plastic in very fine particles, the layering process began. About midway, they changed the cartridge of black nano-ink for orange to produce the Tiger image on the face of the ukulele. The next day, they added four strings, frets and tuning pegs. 

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