3D printing is a fast-growing new technology, and it’s making its way into the classroom. So where do teachers and students begin?
What is 3D printing?
3D printing is a type of manufacturing where you create three-dimensional, solid objects from a digital prototype. In most cases, this means creating a digital 3D prototype and sending it to a machine to “print.”
Different machines use different technology, but the effect is the same: By printing successive layers of material, you eventually build an object. This is a process called additive manufacturing.
How does it work?
The process divides the entire object into thousands of tiny parts that it re-creates from the bottom up. The components are essentially separate 2D prints made of melted plastic stacked on top of each other.
Because the layers can be super complex, 3D printing isn’t limited to basic creations. You can make anything from a coffee cup to a working bicycle.
Learn the terms
Lots of elements go into a successful 3D-printed project, such as print speed, the amount of infill, and the temperature of your extruder.
You can think of “infill” like this: a completely solid object has a 100 percent infill. An object with less infill is less durable and rigid.
More “filament”—the material 3D printing machines use to make the object—is required per percent of infill.
And the “extruder”? That’s the assembly that receives the filament, heats it up to liquify it, and then pushes it through a nozzle to produce the different layers.
Understand why it matters
3D printing is an amazing learning opportunity for students. It gives them a safe zone to experiment with design, allows for prototyping and iteration, and encourages them to turn what they can imagine into reality.
One biomedical teacher, for example, had her class print model medical interventions such as cochlear implants. This is a great way to take ideas that students put on paper and test them in the real world.
This is the future of manufacturing, so it’s important for students to understand the ins and outs of the process and how it works.
Find good resources
A good place to start is by finding models that others have been successful at printing and have your students iterate off of those. Thingiverse.com is one resource you can use.
Tyler also recommended 123d Design, an excellent app that’s compatible with PC, Mac, and iPad. It’s free and user-friendly.
Develop your own best practices
Sometimes the best lesson is learning firsthand what not to do. Through failure, you can develop your own best practices.
More complex prints, for instance, have overhanging parts that require good support, or detailed parts that are more delicate. So you may want to keep this in mind when choosing your first project.
Another tip: Printers often ship with kapton tape for the build place, but this material doesn’t come cheap. Tyler recommends glass pane and cheap hairspray as a substitute.
Don’t get discouraged
3D printing involves trial and error and diligence, so don’t fret if you hit some snags. It takes time to understand, and the learning process will continue even after you start printing successfully.
You can even turn your more spectacular failures into trophies that you display in the classroom. This models failure as an organic part of the learning process for students, and you can watch your collective skills grow over time.
The biggest payoff is getting to take part in a technology that’s new and helping to shape its future. For kids, that’s incredibly exciting and empowering. And the tech is only getting better from here.