3-D printing gives edge to Fermilab experiment

James Wetzel, left, and Burak Bilki, both of the University of Iowa, use 3-D printing technology to manufacture small, temporary parts for the T-1041 CMS forward calorimetry experiment. Photo courtesy of Burak Bilki and James Wetzel

In a public outreach effort for CMS, Fermilab user James Wetzel bought a 3-D printer to build a miniature, build-it-yourself model CMS detector. Only one month later, Wetzel is repurposing his new toy to help build prototypes for CMS upgrade R&D projects based at the University of Iowa.

“The brand is Afinia, and the cost is $1,299,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel’s affordable 3-D printer has churned out numerous small, temporary support parts for Fermilab’s T-1041 CMS forward calorimetry R&D experiments, particularly for one component of the experiment concerning quartz-plate calorimetry. Wetzel and collaborators hope to protect against radiation damage in the CMS detector by reconstructing scintillator tiles using radiation-hard quartz.

Wetzel works alongside University of Iowa’s Burak Bilki and Yasar Onel, co-spokespersons for the CMS forward calorimetry R&D experiments, and is a member of one of six groups working on the experiment. Right now, collaborators are in the prototype design and test phases, and the printer is a huge asset.

“In general, for this kind of experiment, where it’s mostly prototype development, we need support structures and small parts,” Bilki said. “Before, we had to purchase them or go through a complete engineering-production-assembly chain. Now, we have an in-house practical production facility.”

Wetzel adds that, in the past, prototypes were fixed with epoxy or glue or machined, and pieces that needed adjustment were simply stuck, unamendable. Now, instead of shoving bits of oddly shaped plastic into excess space or taping a frame haphazardly, Wetzel can print the exact piece needed.

“It saves a huge amount of time and energy,” Wetzel said. “Before we started using the printer, people were spending five days straight making little structures that, with the 3-D printer, take me a few hours to design, print and test a prototype in the beam.”

The process is fairly easy. Once the sketch is designed on the computer, the tangible piece is literally a click away. A printed piece can take anywhere from two minutes to two hours, depending on its size and detail.

“It seems like this is just a fad, but in a situation like this, it’s a huge advantage,” Wetzel said.

Hanae Armitage