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A 3D vision

ET Editor Rebecca Paddick asks the rountable: Can 3D printing take education to another dimension?

Posted by Hannah Oakman | October 09, 2016 | Technology


  • John Kawola, President, Ultimaker North America
  • Sue Brown, Director, TechSoft
  • Simon Biggs, Education Liaison Officer, Renishaw
  • Sav Jeyendran, Application Specialist, 3D printing, Canon UK
  • Paul Croft, Director Ultimaker GB & Founder CREATE Education Project
  • Louise Geekie, Project Director, Croft Additive Manufacturing
  • Joe Doyle, Marketing Director, Annodata
  • Daniel Cowen, Co-Founder and COO, WobbleWorks

Q. What recent advances have been made in 3D printing within the education sector?  

John Kawola: The largest change in recent years is the significant reduction in cost. Prior to 2010, the least expensive 3D printing solutions available were still greater than $15,000 (£11,300). Now, 3D printers can be brought into schools for less than $5,000 (£3,700).  This step change in affordability has made 3D printing more accessible for a much wider range of businesses, but has also significantly opened up access for schools.

Sue Brown: 3D printing was first introduced to schools in 2004. Today 3D printing is becoming much more widespread, as costs have lowered over the years. For example, for a school to purchase the popular Robox 3D printer available from TechSoft UK, the cost is just £833+VAT.

Simon Biggs: The number and availability of low-cost 3D printing machines is drastically improving the technology’s pick-up in the education sector. It is now possible for schools to buy a 3D printer for around £500, whereas previous versions were cost prohibitive. The drop in price has positively affected the number of schools and universities purchasing 3D printers for educational uses.

Advances in resources available for teachers and other education professionals are also making 3D printing more widely accessible. You can now download design software that can be accessed by tablets and mobile phones, with easy tutorials for beginners.

Sav Jeyendran: The biggest advancement is not necessarily the technology itself but the awareness of the benefits that 3D printing brings to the education sector. In the last few years, we’ve seen 3D printing being included in more varied learning environments than ever before, from architecture courses to fashion colleges. This is, in part, due to the fact that 3D printing is becoming the norm in many working environments and, as a result, schools and universities want to prepare their students for life after education. 

Paul Croft: Over the last 12 months we’ve seen an increase in the number of people using 3D printers in education institutions and as a result the knowledge base and peer-to-peer learning has further aided adoption. With more social proof in the form of case studies and improved exam grades confirming what people in the industry have believed for a while, the new academic year should be really exciting!

Louise Geekie: Currently, primary and secondary schools, as well as universities in the UK are starting to make greater use of 3D printers in design technology classes. Due to the relatively low cost of the material, schools are purchasing low-cost printers that use plastic filament rather than metal powder. 

These machines are giving aspiring young people hands-on experience in additive manufacturing and invaluable insight into the process of designing, printing and creating their own 3D components.

In an attempt to inspire the next generation of 3D engineers, additive manufacturers are also getting more involved with the education sector by hosting experiential visits to factories and taking on work placements.  For example, Croft Additive Manufacturing has worked with The Blair Project in Leigh to give high school students access to industrial printers. 

Joe Doyle: With 3D printing becoming more accessible and cost effective to run, there is no reason schools can’t have access to 3D resources. From both the software and CAD, through to hardware output, there are lots of resources out there to equip and enable the students of today to be using 3D skills in the workplace of tomorrow.

Daniel Cowen: There have been a lot of recent advancements in mainstream 3D printing, mostly aimed at bringing the price down so that 3D printers can become true consumer devices, as well as some really exciting experimentation in the materials used. These advancements have all made their way into the education sector. The last three years have seen entry-level printers drop from US $1K (£750) all the way down to $299 (£226). That’s staggering, and means that 3D printers are within the reach of even more school budgets. We’ve also produced 3Doodler bundles just for schools, ensuring everyone can have that 3D experience. 

On the materials front, if you can grind it and mix it with plastic then it’s happening! As with our new PRO pen, there are now wood filaments, metal filaments, and even filaments that extrude clay and wax. We’ve even developed plastics of our own so that 3D printing, and our pens, can be accessible to kids. That required us to develop plastics that are non-toxic, eco-friendly and work just as effectively as existing plastics, but at much lower and safer temperatures. That’s what we use in the 3Doodler Start, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the industry follows suit soon. The development of safer and more eco-friendly plastics is something educators are very interested in and one of the first questions they ask when they buy.

Q. We’ve seen 3D printing being used in many sectors but has it really moved forward in our schools and universities?

John Kawola: 3D printing has made a significant move forward into education and universities.  For any program that involves physical design or representation (engineering, design, art, geography, medical), there has been an advance in digital content creation tools. 

Instead of creating content on paper, these projects are now being done on the computer and in 3D. Now with this content, the real physical objects can easily be created.  

Sue Brown: Definitely so. With more and more now schools adopting SOLIDWORKS as their chosen 3D CAD system, schools are beginning to get to grips with generating their own designs to be made on the 3D printer, rather than just downloading ready-made files and outputting them.

Simon Biggs:  3D printing in schools and universities has definitely progressed in recent years. This is partly due to the software now available to consumers. 3D printing software is considerably more user-friendly than it was even two years ago, which makes it ideal for younger children to grasp. Innovative apps for mobile phones and tablets make it easy and efficient to create designs and send them to a 3D printer for production. This is where the technology comes into its own.

University students often use 3D printing to produce concept ideas for their CAD drawings. For example, Renishaw was recently involved in a project with Swansea University where metal 3D printing was used to manufacture the intercooler of a Formula Student race car. The students involved designed several versions of the component in CAD and experimented with different manufacturing techniques and materials to produce the best possible design. Metal 3D printing, or additive manufacturing as it is known in industry, proved to offer the greatest design flexibility and strength for the final product.

Sav Jeyendran: We have definitely seen a recent uptake in the number of schools and universities using 3D printing as an important aid to learning. Unsurprisingly, the majority of progression is happening in further education where there is research into new printing materials, faster build times, and bigger and more intricate objects are being created. At the same time, schools are increasingly placing value on the importance of computing and digital technologies in the learning environment and 3D printing is really becoming a part of that.   

Paul Croft: Whilst the progress in some schools has been slower than others, the uptake at university level has been fantastic. The UK & Ireland already have many of the world’s thought leaders in additive manufacturing techniques. The value that desktop 3D printers now represent, compared to a few years ago, is that they facilitate learning opportunities that aren’t available if manufacturing is outsourced.  The schools that have made the investment are reaping the benefits as the pioneers are using 3D printing technology right across the curriculum. 

What continues to excite is the engagement of primary schools – the next generation of entrepreneurs engineers, architects, manufacturers and designers are getting access to this technology at an early age. They just view it as another tool in their collection rather than a magical box that’s incomprehensible – which some people from the older generation struggle to do! 

Louise Geekie: 3D printing is certainly becoming more and more engrained within our education sector but there is definitely still scope for further growth. 

Students are still able to pick up the basic design principles of additive manufacturing from using a 3D plastic printer. However, I feel that universities and schools need to allow those looking to work with metals greater access to high-end industrial printers, such as those employed by CAM.  

Joe Doyle: Massively. 3D printing gives students the ability to produce ideas for a variety of industries that were previously impossible, with ease. It is enabling educators to encourage innovation and creativity and gives students a platform to express their concepts. 

It has revolutionised teaching by educating students to use technology that will support them in a variety of career opportunities. It is changing the way educators teach, bringing new concepts to the industry, which is very beneficial to students of all ages.

Daniel Cowen: Absolutely. For us alone we’ve gone from no schools to over 1,500. We’ve seen districts in the USA purchasing for hundreds of their schools; government programmes in Asia that put our pens in the hands of kids as young as eight, and we now have curricular materials that span whole semesters or just single classroom sessions so that 3D creation can be incorporated into any classroom, library or museum. You just have to go on Twitter to see proof that this is happening, with teachers and students sharing their excitement and creations. The feedback we get has been very valuable too, and shows that teachers are engaging with our products and materials, adopting them and tailoring them for their classroom needs.

This technology will be become a staple part of people's lives just as the internet and smartphones have become

Q. In your opinion, what skills can young learners gain from having 3D printing in the classroom?

John Kawola: 3D printing is enabling and enhancing the creative process. Historically, students with an idea would draw things out or create on a computer.  If they wanted to then produce the object, they would do by hand, or use some other tools, like CNC machines. 3D printers offer the most direct way to turn that idea into a physical part. Students can learn the processes, but also creative and iterative cycles can be enhanced and accelerated.

Sue Brown: The skills are not in the manufacturing – it’s easy to press a button and have the 3D printer make something. The skill is in the designing and this is where 3D CAD software like SOLIDWORKS comes into play and students learn real engineering.  The 3D printer just allows a physical output from the on-screen design, giving the designer a real sense of achievement. Not only that, it is invaluable for prototyping, testing a product and, in many cases, actually producing a finished product. 

Simon Biggs: Using 3D printing as a production method enables students and pupils to move from the conception of an idea to producing a physical object with relative ease. 

The ability to produce an end product so quickly is fantastic for students learning about design, particularly the limitations and constraints. Pupils can spot mistakes in designs far more easily when interrogating a physical object. This allows them to gain valuable problem-solving skills in a creative, hands-on way. Exciting and innovative projects are the simplest way to keep pupils engaged in STEM subjects, which is a vital step forward in addressing the skills shortage.

At Renishaw, we have seen first-hand the learning benefits 3D printing can have for pupils. Our Fabrication Development Centre at our Miskin site, near Cardiff, contains five 3D printers that local schools are invited to use during their design and technology lessons. 

We are also able to enrich pupils’ learning experience further by showing classes our Healthcare Centre of Excellence, also located at Miskin, where they can see Renishaw-manufactured metal 3D printers in action — producing objects such as dental frameworks and facial implants. This allows students to relate their learning in the classroom with practical applications in industry, a link which may otherwise be difficult to grasp. 

Sav Jeyendran: 3D printing in the classroom provides new insights, especially when it comes to translating an idea from flat 2D imagery, whether on a computer or paper, to a physical item. 3D printing shows young learners how easy it can be to build something and how the barriers to creating a physical object are not that high. The University of Nottingham is currently using 3D printing to enable students to deliver creative and intricate architectural models as part of their coursework. This enables them to become familiar with model-making formats and the skills required for their eventual roles in the architecture industry. I believe 3D printing will create a new generation of craftspeople using so many different tools to help shape their built environment into something more exciting. 

Paul Croft: Every educator we collaborate with has a different story of the skills that have been developed thanks to 3D printing. The most powerful in my personal opinion isn’t the STEAM skills that are incorporated into the 3D printing and design process, rather the power to engage pupils otherwise lost to the system. A head teacher working in a challenging school said that one pupil in particular, who refused not to swear at teaching staff, became the model pupil when given access to the Ultimaker2+ because he could see his ideas coming to life! 

Joe Doyle: CAD and 3D printing are the next level of required skills in an educated workforce of designers. People may believe that 3D printing is only useful for engineering-type applications, but it realistically applies to every known field – medical, food, fashion, architecture, even marketing roles! We are still only just scratching the surface of how to take advantage of the many benefits that 3D printing offers and I think that exposure to the technology at a young age brings with it significant rewards – it offers a new and exciting dimension to learning that can only increase a student’s skillset. This in turn will boost career opportunities. Students can show potential employers 3D models that they have built during their studies and present a portfolio of their work before starting a career.  

Daniel Cowen: The spectrum starts with basic social awareness and design thinking, but the sky is the limit. Taking young learners away from screens and putting tools in their hands will teach them how things work and how things can be built. It is also the perfect way to provide a hands-on and engaging way to learn STEM subjects, as well as challenge students to design and reimagine the world around them.

The development of safer and more eco-friendly plastics is something educators are very interested in and one of the first questions they ask when they buy

Q. 3D printers are generally still quite expensive, do the benefits it can bring to teaching and learning justify the costs? 

Sue Brown: We disagree – 3D printers are no longer expensive and allowing our students to explore innovative design and engineering is essential to our country’s economy.

Sav Jeyendran: Like any technology, 3D printing is an investment. In education, the right technology can provide the next generation with the correct skillsets to go far in their future careers. In terms of a return on investment, by providing students with the latest technologies, the education establishment becomes a more desirable place to study, increasing the employability of students.    

Paul Croft: Relative to other equipment in the education institutions I’m not sure it is that expensive and the fact that pupils can actually use this equipment means that tangible learning benefits are abundant.  As part of CREATE Education Project we offer a free loan scheme so teachers can see the value and map the benefits before making an investment.  

Louise Geekie: For schools it’s probably a better idea to purchase a low-end printer and engage with technological centres, universities and manufacturers that have already bought or received funding for high-end machines. 

For university students, hands-on experience in dealing with advanced industry equipment can prove invaluable when seeking employment. 

Joe Doyle: It terms of a comparative expense to other business uses, it’s actually surprisingly cost effective, especially with options to lease available. I think a better question to ask is can the school or university afford not to have it in stock – all the other schools in the same area will be! If a picture says a thousand words, imagine how many words a 3D object that a student has made says. 3D printing will raise engagement from students and help basic critical thinking and problem-solving skills. An educational institution only needs one 3D printer, in comparison to tablets and iPads which have also been suggested to help learning, so they are far more cost effective. 

Daniel Cowen:  The benefits justify the costs if used right. If students are encouraged to understand how objects are designed and built, that knowledge will transfer across to other areas of their learning and development. That said, prices are falling. For just $1,000 an entire classroom can be kitted out with 3Doodlers and they can then be used across the syllabus. Another way that it justifies the costs is how, in one recent example, we saw how 3Doodlers could be used to bridge the gender gap in STEM subjects. Considering the drive to encourage girls to get more involved in this area, it was great to see female students signing up for engineering subjects in higher numbers after using the 3Doodler as a part of their course.

Q. Will 3D printing continue to grow in education – and will these machines be a classroom staple in years to come?  

Sue Brown: We believe so. Any 3D printer at a cost achievable in education can only output in plastics, whereas the more traditional 3D prototyping machines such as the Roland DG MDX-40AE, Roland DG MDX-540E are needed for work at larger sizes and/or in different materials such as wood, aluminium, etc. The traditional machines also have the advantage of being able to output 2D designs extremely quickly.

Simon Biggs: From my experience as a design and technology teacher, I have seen first-hand how 3D printing has become more accessible. 3D printers are now cheaper, more accessible and easier to use as a classroom-learning tool. 

A major hurdle to overcome in the education sector was mastering 3D printing machines. However, the emergence of simple software packages and the availability of online tutorials have greatly improved accessibility to the technology. I would expect that as 3D printing becomes more prominent in industry, this trend will also extend to the consumer market, including the education sector.

3D printing has a number of benefits to a wide range of school and university subject areas, from design and technology to physics and even model building in subjects such as biology and geography. With the reduction in cost of both materials and printers, along with educational facilities’ focus on active learning and the skills gap, I would expect 3D printers to become a widely used educational tool in years to come.

Sav Jeyendran: Yes, 3D printing will continue to grow in a variety of industries, but education presents one of the most important opportunities as the technology becomes increasingly more accessible. We’re already seeing 3D printing as a classroom staple on architecture and design courses, such as the one at the University of Nottingham, but in the not too distant future, I expect 3D printers will sit alongside other classroom technologies, enabling students to learn in new and innovative ways.  

Paul Croft: Given the pull of industry adoption and the requirement for people with relevant skills, it is inevitable. How quickly that happens will rely on how much access and support people receive and how much best practice is shared. Individuals who contest this point haven’t seen the amazing stuff going on in universities and witnessed the disruption across all industries. They may even end up in the same bracket as people who said PCs wouldn’t become a staple! 

Louise Geekie: Currently, the education sector is in the early stages of adopting 3D printing into the classroom. However, as solving the STEM skills gap becomes more and more urgent, we expect to see an increase in industry demand for students with strong computing and design abilities. In order to meet this demand, schools and universities will have to further invest in manufacturing technology, such as 3D printers, that helps young people gain access into STEM careers. Fortunately, current trends suggest that AM technology is developing rapidly and costs associated with 3D printing are falling, making it easier for educational institutions to purchase more advanced machines.

Joe Doyle: 3D printing is predicted to be the next industrial revolution, with every home owning a printer, and printing supplies at home, drastically changing how we buy things in the future. 

Therefore, this technology will become a staple part of people’s lives just as the internet and smartphones have become. Today’s students need to have the skills to be on the next edge of design. 3D printing is already becoming an essential tool in the classroom, and those still thinking of taking the plunge should do so as soon as possible! 

Daniel Cowen: We believe and hope so. We’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of educational adoption. Within 10 years we expect to see 3Doodlers in every classroom, used across art, design and STEM subjects. The engagement and results that come from using these devices mean it is only a matter of time before adoption ramps up and this becomes an educational staple. 

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