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3-D printer makes flying saucers?


LaVerne Sanders enjoys the challenge of making things fly.

Patience makes 3-D printing a perfect hobby for LaVerne Sanders. The retired software engineer has a passion for figuring things out. He has become known for the circular flying discs he designs and makes in his Urbandale basement.

Tucked in the basement of LaVerne Sanders’ Urbandale home are three unique looking machines. Sanders combines these apparatuses — a laser, a CNC machine and a 3-D printer — along with his computer and a steaming mug of coffee to make one-of-a-kind objects.

“I got that guy about five years ago,” he says, pointing at his Mendel Max 3. The 3-D printer kit had to be assembled manually.

“Right down to each little screw,” he says. Similar kits now come mostly put together, but he worked for two months on his. “I’m retired now, but when I put it together, I had to work evenings and weekends.”

What exactly is a 3-D printer, and why is one helpful?

Prep Iowa

New products generally begin as a design. These designs need to become a prototype so that potential clients and investors can visualize them. But making these initial models has historically been difficult or expensive. 3-D printers help alleviate some of this burden. Imagine an inkjet printer that works in 3-D. The printer prints, or builds, objects by layering thin layers of a plastic-like material on top of another.

“In theory, you can make anything you can draw,” Sanders says, assuming you had a printer big enough, but he cautions that it isn’t as easy as it sounds. The average person with no training wouldn’t be able to do much. He estimates that 95 percent of the work, when it comes to 3-D printing, is done at the electronic drawing board with a CAD (computer-aided design software) program. Long hours at these computer drawing boards are first required, and the drawing takes time and patience to learn.

“I went to school to get an electrical engineering degree but soon got into software,” he says. “I had no experience with any of this when I started.”

Anything might technically be possible to make, but not everything should be 3-D printed. Two-dimensional objects are less practical for a 3-D printer.

“That’s why it’s nice to have a CNC machine,” he says. “It’s nice to have both tools.”

Flat pieces, in particular, are done better with computer numerical control (CNC) machines that, like the 3-D printers, are pre-programmed via computer software. They move tools and wood-working machinery, such as routers, drills, boring tools and lathes.

Sanders enjoys a challenge, and he has mastered these skills well enough to become known among his friends for the circular aircraft he makes. His radio-controlled planes aren’t technically flying saucers, but, in the sky, they look a lot like UFOs — and they come hot off the presses from Sanders’ basement.

“I’m infatuated with anything that gets up into the air,” he says, motioning to the many planes positioned around his home. But only one was purchased as a kit. That’s the one he put together with his son 10 years ago. The rest are his designs.

“Everything else you see in this room, those are all mine,” he says. “We made them, drew them, cut them out on my CNC machine, put them together and made them work.” ♦

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