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The manufactured tree

The manufactured tree

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There's never been one like it.

In the 32-year-history of Quad-City Arts Festival of Trees, there has never been a tree like the one being made by staff and students of Eastern Iowa Community Colleges' John T. Blong Technology Center in Davenport.

The reason: All the ornaments are being created — one might say manufactured — on 3D printers, or machined from blocks of aluminum or brass, or a combination of both printed and machined components.

Another unique aspect is that instead of using an already-lighted artificial tree provided by the festival, the college is making its own tree out of stainless steel tubes, welded together and set in a solid aluminum base. Strings of LED lights will be "fished" through the tubes, emerging at the tube openings with bursts of bright white light.

The idea for the manufactured tree was hatched over the summer by Brad McConnell, the college's instructor of mechanical design technology and solid modeling, and Rich Horst, the college's director of development. They thought it would be a good way to educate the public about what is happening in the college's various manufacturing programs.

As Ellen Kabat Lensch, the college's vice chancellor for workforce and economic development, said, the tree dispels the notion that "manufacturing is a dark, dingy world."

"It is exciting and cutting-edge," she said. "I hope people look at the tree and say, 'Wow, that's manufacturing?' If you can think it, you can make it."

Festival of Trees opens to the public on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the RiverCenter, Davenport, following the downtown parade. Kwik Star, the convenience store chain based in Wisconsin, has signed on for a three-year title sponsorship of the event, so it will be known as Kwik Star Festival of Trees. Kwik Star has numerous locations throughout the Quad-Cities.

During a recent day at the Blong Center, several different types of 3D printers were at work in a classroom of the technology center, making ornaments.

Snowflakes and trees were emerging as liquid plastic was laid down by a printer head in successive layers, the head guided by a computer program. An ultraviolet laser cures the plastic as it takes shape. 

This process also is called additive manufacturing. Whereas traditionally a snowflake might have been made by taking a block of material and whittling away parts of it until it assumed the shape of a snowflake — a process called subtractive manufacturing — additive manufacturing keeps adding material until the object looks like a snowflake. There is no waste.

"It's not an extremely fast process, but it's efficient," McConnell said.

The tree is drawing from the skills of five different college programs: welding, mechanical design, CNC (computer numerical control) machining, engineering technology, renewable energy.

"It's great to know manufacturing, but there is so much IT (information technology) involved, Lensch said. "This project absolutely shows how working together can create something much greater than the individual disciplines. You learn how important everybody's piece is."

What will the college do next year to top this?

Maybe next year, Eastern Iowa can enter a virtual tree, Horst said with a smile.

"You walk in and have a hologram. You can walk right through it. If you have glasses, you see it. If not, you don't."


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