Engineering solutions

Engineering students create solutions to real-world problems


Freshman engineering students don’t often get to work on real-world problems, but last spring at Walla Walla University, Don Riley’s Introduction to Engineering class did just that using cutting-edge 3-D printing technology. The 57 students in the class were organized into teams of three and four, and each team was given a RepRap 2020 Prusa i3 aluminum 3-D printer kit. These small but complex printers took each team an average of 40 hours of lab time to construct and calibrate.

3-D printers offer students the freedom to rapidly create prototype solutions to problems without the limitations of traditional manufacturing. Riley, professor of engineering, tasked his students with designing and creating a solution to a problem presented by his fellow WWU alumnus Kirk Betz, assistant manager of Sunset Lake Camp in Wilkeson, Washington. Betz was looking for high quality, affordable radio belt clip swivel adapters for camp-issued staff radios. The 3-D printed swivel adapters would have to hold the weight of the radio and survive pushing and pulling without breaking.

While a swivel adapter may sound like a simple project, it actually proved to be an ideal challenge. The adapter needed to smoothly slide into the belt clip, lock into place, and be easy to release when the radio is needed. A well-designed and well-functioning swivel adapter required a slight overhang. The limitations of the capable, but very simple, 3-D printer kits would challenge students as they attempted to 3-D print the swivel adapters that they designed. Freshman civil engineering major Katie Mowat explained, “The kit we built does not print support material. That meant that we had to make our own spacers and use a design that could be printed without much overhang.” 

Different groups came up with different solutions to the problem, including adding support inserts during printing, printing two pieces that would be glued together after printing, and printing two pieces that would snap together. 

Tyler Nelson, teacher’s assistant, said, “Our academic goal of challenging students to find creative solutions was exceeded. Professor Riley and I were pleased to see the variety and quality of the solutions that the students had.” To date, none of the designs have been able to withstand prolonged testing for full-scale production, but the goal of challenging the freshman students before they begin their future engineering classes was achieved.

“In the end there was a lot of teamwork, not only within teams, but between all the students in the class,” said Mowat. “As a class we learned a lot more about each other and what each of us is good at. The experience helped all of us to come out of our comfort zone and ask each other for help.”

Watch a video of one of the swivel clip adapters in action at

Posted September 28, 2016

Students examine a test print from their 3D printer.
Freshman civil engineering student Katie Mowat holds a radio outfitted with a belt clip her group designed and printed.
The printed clip slides into the belt piece for lightweight and simple operation.
A fresh belt clip is printed. The printer uses PLA plastic which comes in reels like weed-whacker string. The print head acts like a precise cake froster as it layers plastic to build three dimensional shapes.