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Printing progression

The emergence of simple software packages and tutorials have greatly improved accessibility to 3D printing, says Simon Biggs

Posted by Stephanie Broad | November 11, 2016 | Technology

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

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. 

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

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.

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

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 firsthand 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.

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

4.) 3D printers are generally still quite expensive, do the benefits it can bring to teaching and learning justify the costs?

3D printers are a valuable tool to help young people understand the principles of design and develop problem solving skills. Without the ability to print prototypes, it would be considerably more difficult for students to identify weaknesses in their designs and improve upon them quickly.

In recent years the price of consumer 3D printers has dropped as the market has expanded. This makes the purchase of a machine easier to justify in the education sector.

5.) Can you recommend any resources or training programmes which could help schools/universities and teachers to understand and use a 3D printer? 

Two resources I would recommend are Tinkercad and Onshape. Tinkercad is a free, simple design and 3D printing app that is suitable for both teachers and students. Users can access the software on computers, tablets, laptops or even smartphones.

The Renishaw Fabrication Development Centre uses Tinkercad as the design platform for its five 3D printers. This simple software is incredibly easy to master; we even use it with primary school children when designing and printing class projects. 

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

From my experience as a design and technology teacher, I have seen firsthand 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.

Simon Biggs is Education Liaison Officer at Renishaw


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