Getting Started with 3D Printing in Education

University and high-school educators from California, New York, Hawaii, Texas, Australia and the United Kingdom contacted me over the winter holiday break regarding SOLID Learning and the potential presented by introducing 3D Printers into educational settings. Each school is considering the acquisition of one or more 3D printers to use locally to produce student designs, introducing the tremendous potential present in additive manufacturing to the artists, makers and engineers of tomorrow. Many of these programs are being taught as a component of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas that range from marine archaeology and early hominid studies to aeronautical wing design, optics and robotics. I have been very pleased by programs that look to a broader application from sustainable manufacturing and materials recycling to personalized technology enhancements, jewelry and ceramic or plastic furnishings and artistic home decorations.


The relatively-new spectrum of 3d printers can become very overwhelming for educators and their administrators trying to decide what is possible and what the costs will be to begin their programs. Direct metal sintering systems capable of high-precision manufacturing of rocket motors, large concrete printers capable of crafting structural components, while high-resolution wax and stereolithographic systems can produce very detailed items with nearly microscopic levels of detail. All such systems involve 3D printers that cost far more than any but special purpose grant-funded researchers will be able to afford. This does not mean that these programs are out of reach, though – several options exist that can be leveraged to achieve very effective results.

Special Purpose Printers

Special-purpose printers should be acquired based on an intended use, and will generally carry a higher cost to the school. Examples of these printers that could benefit schools would be multi-color and multi-material fabrication systems.


Multi-color printers like the ZPrinter use an ink-jet binder sprayed into a media formed of small plastic powder granules, and this binder can be mixed when jetted to achieve multi-colored printed products that have been seen in movies like Paranorman, where the ability to directly print the end product with customization suitable to artistic uses such as animation. Multi-colored printers can create wholly-artistic products as well as reproductions of artifacts, locations and biological samples for comparative study in addition to more exotic uses such as the coloring of designs based on finite element stress modeling. However, powder-based or laminated paper layering systems that provide full color reproductions generally lack structural robustness and may not bear weight or shear forces.

Arc-de-Triomphe thumbs1

Multi-material printers like the Objet series of printers employ a polyjet capable of mixing materials during fabrication to create final products with different material compositions, such as a 3D printed wheel that has both a structural detailed hub and also a limited-slip rubberized tire formed during a single print. Mixtures of materials allow bio-compatible designs or biological samples with transparent overlays to allow direct inspection of internal characteristics without dissection. This same capability supports high-strength and highly detailed designs whose internal structure can be illustrated to the student to allow focus on specific features, such as architectural detail or morphological studies. Objet has the Scholar program, which has been developed to bring this capability to schools and universities with a standard set of materials.

The solid learning concept of layered educational alignment with 3d printing capabilities

Special purpose printers provide options for higher detail, faster production speeds, improved material mixtures, integrated coloring and object build sizes that exceed most individual school needs unless there is an established program for things such as designs of medical implants (multi-material) or animation and archaeological (multi-color) studies. SOLID Learning identifies these “complex capability” systems as best suited to a Regional fab lab where their capabilities can be leveraged for multiple schools to warrant the cost of printers and materials. Many of the educational makerspaces being formed through the DARPA-funded MENTOR program will have these types of printers, and may be able to form an initial hub for their school district or region to being the introduction of 3D Printing into outlying schools in turn.

Consumer Printers

The success of consumer-grade 3D printers is the current driving force behind the interest in additive manufacturing, whether the discussion includes 3D printed firearms in a recent CSI episode, patent protection of similarly-themed model designs in the recent Games Workshop lawsuits, or estimations that “the third industrial revolution” has arrived by economists like The Motley Fool. A recent discussion with the manager of a local hardware store revealed a few ideas about the potential impact of placing a production studio in individual homes, allowing people to create personalized items and replacement parts on demand rather than buying entirely new ones. Consumer 3D printers can be used to teach manufacturing, marketing, economics, CAD modeling, and a wide variety of other studies even before they begin to actually create objects.

MakerBot Replicator 2Consumer-level printers are being developed in many shapes and sizes to a dizzying degree of variety. One of the more well established brands is the MakerBot, whose new storefront in New York is mentioned regularly by educators who have just seen the amazing new potential presented by these systems. Like many others, MakerBots and their close cousins like Cubify, Solidoodle, Printrbot and many others use fused deposition modeling to build layers of melted thermoplastics atop one another to create the final product. The more common types of plastic filament are PLA or ABS, both of which melt under 200 degrees Celsius and can be used in classroom environments to print a wide variety of objects for inclusion into lesson plans.

ABS Plastic Filament - natural coloration

Consumer printers may use generic filament spools or special cartridges only available through their manufacturer. Generic filament printers are easier for a school to supply, while the cartridge-based systems sometimes have fewer settings for teachers to manage. In either case, individual consumer-level printers can be obtained for a few thousand US dollars and their materials can usually be obtained for $35 USD per spool of generic filament. These can provide the quickest start-up for a new small single-class or single-school program, bringing easily-configured rapid prototyping capability to classrooms for roughly the cost of a new band instrument.

RepRap Printers

Another option for teachers is the RepRap style of printer, which can be created entirely by the school and its students using readily-available items from a hardware store (referred to as “vitamins” by RepRap builders), generic electronics (Arduino-based), stepper motors from old printers, and 3D printed components created using another 3D printer – whether from a special-purpose, consumer-grade or another RepRap. The name RepRap comes from the idea of a “self-REPlicating RAPid prototyping” robot, the brainchild of a UK researcher named Adrian Bowyer. His designs are released as open source, downloadable designs and instructions and have evolved into many of the consumer-grade systems available today. Researchers trying out new systems for producing biological tissues, food or new medications will often use one variation or another of the popular RepRap design. Teachers with advanced students can use the fabrication of a RepRap as part of their design, robotics, microcontrollers, programming, and many other classes – again, well before the actual 3D printing even commences.


Although many RepRaps use the same generic PLA or ABS plastic filament as many consumer-grade printers, students have adapted the design and others like the Fab@Home to allow printing using sand, concrete, foamed recycled milk cartons, even chocolate or beans and rice (in the BurritoBot). For teachers with very tight controls on budgets or who want to work with the fabrication of their printer as part of the educational program, a RepRap can be constructed for a few hundred USD each. Although the “homebuilt” level of sophistication will reflect the capabilities and experience of the assembly team, RepRaps and their cousins can produce some remarkable effective and accurate 3D printed objects for the lowest possible cost to the teacher who wants to get into 3D printing in their classrooms.

3D Printing Services

For the teacher that wants to work with students in design of 3D objects but does not yet have even a home-built 3D printer, all is not lost – there are many 3D printing services available online like Shapeways and i.Materialize to produce full-color, multi-material, or even metal and ceramic models from uploaded 3D design files. Additionally, many local makerspaces, FabLabs and even a few copy shops are starting to support 3D printing capability.

Extended SOLID Learning model with local RepRap 3d printing

For teachers that want to get started rapidly in bridging the amazing potential of 3D printers into their classrooms, the simplest path will usually be to purchase a fully-assembled commercial grade system for use in the classroom and contracting final production through a 3D printing service until districts have a chance to acquire more complex special purpose printers to share with their schools. For the maker/teacher who is willing to assemble and tune their printer by hand, a RepRap can cut the startup costs with additional time required to assemble, tune and maintain the system compared to commercial off the shelf alternatives. For mature programs with special needs, a wide range of options are available – most of which, save the power-binder models, can be used to produce RepRaps to share this potential with other schools in the surrounding area.

Even if your school cannot afford a RepRap, there are still online and possibly local resources available that can help turn your students’ dreams into physical form. Do not let a lack of access deter your efforts to expand the scope of your classroom, and place make sure to share your ideas and applications with the growing body of your fellow educators so that children around the world can benefit from your and your students’ creativity!

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