3D Printing in Education

May 12, 2015
Written by Diogo Quental

What is 3D Printing
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that allows users to turn a digital file into a 3D object through the deposition of successive layers of material. The equipment used to create these objects are 3D printers, a type of industrial robot that uses specific software to control the deposition of each layer of material in such fashion that the desired object is created.

Industrial revolution
The adoption of 3D printing is adding a new dimension in Human Evolution where passive consumers turn to active creators. It will be a new paradigm improving everybody’s lives.

In industry, however, the adoption of 3D printing is in a more nature stage. The new technology is already being used by the most competitive companies worldwide, mainly to reduce their product development periods.

Opinion makers have generally declared the beginning of a new industrial revolution and more and more countries and economical areas defined and are implementing their 3D strategies, usually allocating massive funds to them.

Everyday a new application of 3D Printing is announced and websites like 3D Printing Industry, 3D Print, and 3Ders keep track of it.

The momentum gained by 3D printing is such that it is now certain it will become part of our daily lives in the near future.

3D Printing in Education
Since 3D printing is becoming extensively used in manufacturing, it is mandatory that school graduates learn about this technology. Schools just can’t afford missing it out, otherwise they won’t be properly preparing their students. Despite its importance, low cost and low danger, the adoption of 3D Printing by Schools has been slow. This is likely to be caused by the lack of knowledge about this technology by the decision makers in charge.

Besides this logical reasoning there are more motivations for Schools to become 3D adopters: not only students are usually more eager and ready to accept new ideas and methodologies and find new uses for them, but also 3D Printing can become a relevant pedagogical factor, able to improve the overall learning experience. Very shortly textbooks will include 3D printable models integrated with the content of each lesson. This will provide a richer Educational experience both for students and teachers.

The major benefits of 3D Printing in Education are generally considered the following:

  1. Higher motivation, caused by a “wow factor” that also increases students’ creativity, critical thinking, and class involvement;
  2. Easy Iterative designing since students easily engage in hands-on learning activities, such as conceptualize, visualize and design 3D parts, printing, testing and evaluating them through each stage of development, from sketch to final product; and if it doesn’t work then try again;
  3. Mindset where it is okay to make mistakes, which contributes to student’s confidence and problem solving skills, which will be increasingly valuable in a world where nowadays professions may not exist in the future;
  4. Visual and tactile aids that can be used to illustrate harder to grasp concepts. 

Applications of 3D printing in Education
3D Printing unsurprisingly goes hand in hand with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum, but just about every subject within a school curriculum could benefit from 3D printing technology. A few examples are outlined below:

3D printing can be used to print out cells or organs, or to build any personalised model or equipment for chemistry or biology lessons. Instead of dissecting a frog in class, for example, students can now assemble the complete frog.

Teachers can help to engage students by using 3D models to bring formulas and equations to life and explain mathematical principals, rather than simply focusing on exercises in books. Complex geometry, for example, or trigonometric functions, can be illustrated using 3D printed models to help students quite literally visualise problems through tangible representations.

Rather than starting off prospective engineering students with abstract theory and math-based problem solving, they can taste the joys of product design by experiencing, first-hand, an entire product design cycle. The technology can be used to help test and for the production of functioning prototypes, demonstrating well engineered solutions.

3D Printing provides a brand new method of creating art. It holds great potential for the creative industries and increasingly it’s being used as a medium in itself. The different textures, complex geometries, structures or moulds that 3D printing can produce makes it capable of making sculptures which would otherwise be impossible using traditional manufacturing method.

The ability to test designs in iterations throughout the design process results in a final product that students can print and is more streamlined, cheaper and functional, therefore also helping to benefit the end user.

We live in a 3D world, so having a chance to see and touch a 3D representation of the geography and geology that we are being taught would obviously be the preferred option. 3D printing is an excellent way for students to better understand geological formations on a scale that is not presentable through 2D images.

In history classes students can print replicas of artefacts exhibited in museums that can be touched, and may be virtually indistinguishable from their real counterparts.

Other examples
In Architecture, students can print out 3D models of designs. In Cooking, students can create food moulds or cookie cutters. In Automotive, students can print out replacement or modified parts. In Medicine, doctors can take an MRI of a part of a human body, then print out an exact replica of it and practice on it for a specific and unique surgery.

What 3D printers should Schools buy?
Despite the very decent prices 3D printers have already reached, most Schools are procrastinating their purchase decision, which brings to my mind the wisdom “if you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur!”.

Staying out of this new technology has a cost that no School can afford. Therefore it’s time for Schools to analyse what features should they look for in 3D printers.

Here is my, not independent, recommendation:

Unless the lesson is about 3D Printing itself, the 3D printer should be Plug & Print. Most benefits of having it in class would be lost otherwise.

Low maintenance, reliability, post-sales and warranty
While it’s wise to expect any 3D printer will still require maintenance, the last thing a School certainly wants is to buy a 3D printer that malfunctions most of the time. The quality of the frame and of the extruder are key for the quality of the equipment. There are printers that will work even if they fall from a first floor (and I know what I’m talking about) and others that will not survive its own transport.

Be careful also about post-sales services and warranties provided, as there are major differences in what each brand is offering.

Open, safe and green materials
It is known that all 3D printers’ manufacturers will want 3D printing materials to become their main stream of revenue. Nothing wrong with it, as long as they don’t force Schools to buy materials that Schools would rather not buy. For this reason, choosing a brand that has no proprietary filament will tend to ensure that only better priced and quality materials are bought.

The need for safety comes as a no-brainer when students, possibly young students, are on the spot. PLA is the best choice since its extrusion does not require room ventilation nor a heated bed.

Last, but not least, do choose green materials. Improving the world through 3D Printing and using materials that will damage the environment sounds paradoxical, and even irrational when green materials, like PLA, are available.

Portability is the type of feature one only appreciates after losing it. We all saw the evolution of desktop computers to laptops and there is no reason to think that the same won’t happen with 3D printers. The more they will be in our lives, the more we will want to take them with us.

For Schools the need for portability is even higher, as in the beginning it is not expectable to see each class with its own 3D printer. Moving printers from one room to the other will be normal and so portability does have to be taken into account.

Printing volume balanced with expected volume of printing objects
I recently heard of someone who would make her electronics purchase decisions based on the number of buttons the equipment would have. Her rationale was that too many buttons would mean too many functions she wouldn’t use, but she would still have to pay for. The simplicity of this analysis is powerful when deciding on the printing volume a 3D printer should have. It is known that most objects printed are only as big as to fit in an open hand. In a School environment it is expectable that most printed objects will be small, either because the print should be terminated during the lesson or to facilitate 3D printers sharing by all students. For these reasons, unless there is a specific reason for Schools to buy 3D printers with large printing volumes, it is wise to choose a medium or low volume.

The recent failure in crowdfunding platforms of so many 3D printer’s projects promising all for nothing show that quality cost.

Do not expect to buy a good quality assembled 3D printer for less than €1.000 and ask yourself why to pay more than €2.000. Taxes and transport costs may cause prices to change from country to country, but most Schools shall be able to buy the 3D printer they need within this price range.

Regarding materials, despite the recent waken-up to 3D Printing, prices are already very reasonable. The price-range per Kilo may vary from €25 to €50 for open materials, and may reach over €120 for proprietary filament. High quality standard filaments are increasingly available at prices close to the bottom range and there should be no reason for Schools not to go for them. When the purpose is to try something completely new, then only a few brands are offering special filaments and prices will be closer to open materials’ top range. In most cases, however, the situation is that printed object will be far more valuable than the filament cost, so it shall be no deal-killer in 3D Printing adoption by Schools.

While the purchase decision may be hard when decision makers are not fully familiar with this technology, I mind them that allowing their students to have access now to 3D Printing will give them a first-mover advantage. In world that is already looking for 3D Printing experts, this may now be irrelevant to the case.

The 3D Printing revolution may be the trigger for the educational revolution we are all discussing for so long. Shall we give it a go?