A teacher’s guide to 3D printers

Are you interested in investing in a 3D printer for your classroom but don’t know where to start? We have the lowdown…

By Fernando Hernandez, MD for Europe, XYZPrinting

No matter where you look, whenever there’s a pick of the top classroom technology for future schools, 3D printers will make the cut. After all, not only do they test knowledge across all STEAM subjects, they’re interactive and produce tangible results that are bound to engage students. 

But kitting a room out with 3D printers is an investment, and you want to ensure you’re getting the best and most appropriate equipment possible for your budget. So, what should you be looking out for?

What technology is right for you and your students

For the classroom, there are two main types of 3D printer out there: Fused Filament Fabrication (FFF, also sometimes known as FDM), which prints layers of melted plastic on top of one another to form objects; and Stereolithography (SLA), which uses a UV laser to harden a liquid plastic resin.

If you’re looking to introduce students to the world of 3D printing, FFF printers are both the most affordable and easiest to use. You may lose some of the finer details of your design, but FFF printers are more than capable of helping students get to grips with the basic principles.

For a higher-quality finish on prints, SLA printers will offer better precision, enabling students to capture even the intricacies of a design. As the print is essentially ‘floating’ in resin, it also allows for more complex shapes that you otherwise couldn’t achieve with an FFF printer. That said, an SLA printer will be significantly slower than its FFF counterpart, and the materials cost a lot more, so it will be more expensive to run.

What material you should use for printing 

Plastic filaments can also be split into two categories: PLA and ABS. While ABS plastics are generally more robust than PLA, they also produce fumes that can be toxic if too concentrated so are not recommended for beginners. PLA comes in a variety of colours, is eco-friendly and biodegradable, so it does provide users with a good and child-friendly alternative.

Resin prints, while allowing for greater design flexibility and accuracy, are messy even at the best of times – don’t be surprised if your print comes out sticky! It’s worth noting that resin prints also produce fumes, and need to be cured with chemicals to ensure any residue is removed. Again, not recommended for beginners. 

The da Vinci Nano uses PLA

Safety features – within your school, and the printer itself

Generally speaking, it’s good practice to keep 3D printers in well-ventilated rooms, even if they don’t produce toxic fumes, so do carefully consider where you place them. Note that ‘well-ventilated’ shouldn’t equate to cold or drafty rooms – that can cause prints to cool down too quickly, ultimately warping your work.

From cold to hot, be careful about hands getting too close to printers in action. FFF printer nozzles can reach temperatures of up to 250°C! Some printers also come with heated printing beds of up to 110 °C – more than enough to give people a nasty burn. Many printer ranges come with separate covers or come fully enclosed, which are definitely worth considering to avoid injuries.

Finally, there are many 3D printing enthusiasts who would recommend using hairspray to help prints stick to the bed. However, a small spark could be enough to ignite the gas, so any build-up in the spray would be a significant hazard. Instead, consider using water-soluble glue sticks or stick-on plastic films. 

How much upkeep the printer needs

One thing to be aware of is consumables. There are certain parts of a 3D printer that, no matter how well you look after it, will eventually need replacing. Nozzles on an FFF printer, for example, will typically last 6-12 months if kept in good condition – but printing materials at high temperatures will eventually take its toll.

To stretch a nozzle’s lifespan, make sure you clean it regularly with a metal brush and unblock any residual plastic. The quality of the filament you use in printing will also have an impact on how long your nozzle will last, so it’s often better to look for proprietary filaments than simply buying the cheapest material on the market.

Your printer bed or tank will also need a regular clean with a moist, warm towel to remove any leftover glue or resin.

Otherwise, upkeep is relatively simple – but consider a printer that knows how to calibrate itself to make life easier when you have to remove and replace components, or you might end up spending some time repositioning the nozzle and bed to print effectively.

Other peripherals and upgrades that might be handy

The 3D printing ecosystem is getting wider every day, so there are many extra tools you could add to your suite to enhance your students’ experience.

A 3D pen could be a great tool for more complex procedures

3D scanners are great for students with little 3D design experience, as it allows them to take scans of existing objects and convert them to editable, printable files. There are both handheld models available, and integrated scanner / printers.

For more complex personalisation, you could also look into 3D printing pens to add colourful flourishes to prints, or for more confident users, laser engravers that can burn details into existing objects.

Also keep in mind that your typical 3D printer will only print in one block colour (they’re quite easy to paint, or colour in afterwards), though there are a few devices on the market now that allow for two.

Apart from that, you’ll just need a scraper to help you remove prints from the bed.

There are many models now available on the 3D printing market, but if you keep in mind your students’ level of competency and the environment you’ll be keeping the printers in, you’ll be well on your way to selecting the device that’s right for you. 3D printers will bring about the next revolution in technology, so teachers who embrace the technology now will ultimately help put both their schools and students ahead of the curve.