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Take-apart, hack and design: Repurposing an ink-jet printer for prototyping in mechanical design

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2019 ASEE PNW Section Conference


Corvallis, Oregon

Publication Date

March 20, 2019

Start Date

March 20, 2019

End Date

March 22, 2019



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Paper Authors


Gerald W. Recktenwald Portland State University

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Gerald Recktenwald is an Associate Professor in the Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department at Portland State University. His current research interests are in improving engineering education, and in the numerical simulation and measurement of fluid flow heat transfer in electronic equipment, energy efficient buildings, and other industrial applications.

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Abstract for presentation

We have used dissection and hacking of ink-jet printers as a source of prototyping parts and subsystems for mechanical systems involving motion control. In this presentation we describe two design challenges that used old ink-jet printers as a “kit of parts”. In addition to supplying motors, bearings, gear trains and sensors, the printers provided working examples of how to control motion of the print head – at least until the printer was disassembled.

In the Fall of 2016, 93 students competed in a design challenge to move a radio-controlled (RC) truck over a 15cm high obstacle. Students could operate the RC controls to steer and move the truck, but they could not otherwise interact with their device that had to automatically raise the truck over the obstacle. In the Fall of 2017, 100 students competed a design challenge to “rescue” a Lego minifigure by transporting the minifigure from a tall tower with parapet walls to a “stretcher” at the base of the tower. For both design challenges, points were awarded for speed of operation, total weight of the device (lighter is better) and the cost of the bill of materials (BOM). To encourage maximum repurposing of printer parts, any components from the printer were assigned zero cost in the BOM when the score was computed. Each year, approximately 20 printers were obtained at no cost from a local electronics recycling organization.

A primary goal of the challenge was to give students experience with rapid prototyping in developing design concepts. Sketches and cardboard mockups were required before teams built fully functioning prototypes from their printer carcasses. The challenge occurred during the second half of a 10-week term, so teams had to work quickly while exploring different design solutions through multiple prototypes. In addition to the prototyping experience, the design challenge was intended to provide intrinsic motivation for learning design techniques, teamwork, and to develop a respect for the complications of manufacturing and testing.

Students worked in teams of 5 in open laboratories where they could learn from each other. Despite the close proximity a variety of design approaches were used for each design challenge. Teams were assigned by the instructor (using the CATME tool from Purdue) to balance prior experience and academic success. The resulting teams were generally diverse and usually involved students who have never worked together before.

In the presentation, we provide some details on how we implementation of the design challenge and printer disassembly, including the requirement of multiple stages of prototyping. We show examples of student designs, including the top designs in the competition.

The take-apart and hack a printer experience would be easy to transfer to another university. By suitable choice of a design challenge, the take-apart and hack experience could be applied from freshman through senior level design courses.

Recktenwald, G. W. (2019, March), Take-apart, hack and design: Repurposing an ink-jet printer for prototyping in mechanical design Paper presented at 2019 ASEE PNW Section Conference, Corvallis, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--31895

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