Burton Precision dives deep to help U-M’s submarine team


When the University of Michigan’s human-powered submarine team competes in Bethesda, Md., next year, one Grand Rapids company will be in the cheering section.

Burton Precision, a machine tool distributor that specializes in metrology and 3D printing products, recently helped produce a 3D printed propeller used by the team for a scale model propeller test.

Each year, U-M students on the submarine team begin drafting plans for a new sub or designing improvements for an existing sub. Every summer the team competes in an international competition, which tests the sub's speed and agility against other teams from around the world.

Rick Kerkstra, Burton Precision vice president and 3D printing specialist, was introduced to Jeremy Werner following an open house the company held for members of GR Makers.

Werner, president of the submarine team and a member of the University of Michigan’s Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Department, was struggling with a point cloud file for a propeller design.

“Point cloud data is more or less non-intelligent data, you can’t do much with it,” Kerkstra said. “Jeremy was dealing with point data and wanted to know if I could convert it to a useful file. What he was looking for was a file that he could put a cutter path to.”

Kerkstra said it’s pretty common for someone to come to him with a point cloud file they aren’t able to utilize because most people don’t have the software to turn the file into useful data.

“A lot of people come to me and say I have this part, somebody scanned it for me, but they gave me the point cloud. They didn’t finish it,” he said. “Unless you have dedicated software to deal with a point cloud — we use Geomagic Studio Software — you can’t do a whole lot with it.”

Kerkstra said he tried creating a surface file out of the point cloud data Werner supplied, but soon discovered there wasn’t enough information to do so.

In the end, Kerkstra and Werner exchanged countless emails and attempted several routes to create a usable file for the propeller.

The pair was finally able to create a surface file that worked.

“Once we had a good surface file to give back to him, I asked if we could 3D print it, and that opened another door,” Kerkstra said. “We had further discussions about strength of material, testing using a scale version and overall functionality of the 3D printed part.”

Ultimately, Burton Precision used its 3D Systems ProJet 3500 HDMax printer, one of two 3D printers the company owns, to print the cone, hub assembly and blades, which the submarine team used in its test tank.

Kerkstra said the blade assembly was 10-inches long.

“Based on the scaled tests, everything shows they could achieve the record for speed for a human-powered submarine,” Kerkstra said.

The next step for the submarine team is to make a large-scale version, likely out of aluminum, which will be used on the actual submarine the team will compete with at the International Submarine Race next summer.

“Burton Precision became a key player in providing a hands-on learning experience for me and all the team members involved in the scale model propeller test,” Werner said.

Kerkstra said one of the key things he thinks the experience taught the team is the reality of how expensive 3D printing is.

“They had no idea of the cost associated with what we were doing,” Kerkstra said.

He explained how at one point Werner requested six small 3D printed model subs for the team, expecting to pay around $30 for them. The true cost for those subs was closer to $600 each.

Burton Precision took on the submarine propeller project pro bono.

“That is the biggest thing we see as we get into the whole 3-D printing world. Customers walk in the door and say how much to print 10 of these, and it’s sticker shock,” he said.

3D printing is a growing industry and Kerkstra does expect the cost to eventually come down.

He said he is anxious to see how the submarine performs when it competes next summer.

According to the team’s website, “The subs are timed through a 10-meter section of the Model Basin, an indoor channel usually used by the U.S. Navy to test new ship designs. Teams run the course one at a time, and may take as many turns as time allows over the course of the five-day competition.”

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