If you can imagine it, you can make it

When it comes to 3D printing in education, the possibilities are practically endless, says Martin Hamilton, Futurist, Jisc

1. What skills can learners gain from bringing 3D printing into the classroom?

The promise of 3D printing is that if you can imagine it, you can make it. What’s more, sites like Thingiverse give you the opportunity to build on other people’s work by downloading particular components, whole projects or models. The possibilities are practically endless.

Building and manipulating 3D models has long been a staple of computer based modelling and simulation, such as computer-aided design and engineering (CAD/CAE). Now we are starting to see the use for 3D modelling break out of these subject domains – and with it an increase in demand for these skills. Indeed, a recent report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills found that the UK’s global competitiveness is reliant on building skills in advanced IT techniques.

3D printing has implications most obviously for creative thinking and design – as we can see in Rolls-Royce’s 3D printed engine housing, which is soon to fly in the Airbus A380. We have also started to see 3D printing be used in medicine and the arts to support the learning experience itself. Imagine being a medical student and holding a 3D print of a child’s heart in your hand to study how to fix a congenital defect, or a fashion student using 3D printing to create entire garments of clothing – these are things that have simply never been possible before.

2. 3D printers are generally still quite expensive. Do the benefits it can bring to teaching and learning justify the costs? (Please explain your response – list the benefits etc)

I think we need to distinguish between exposing learners to 3D technology specifically to prepare them to better exploit it, and simply using the technology ‘in passing’. An example of the latter could be a tutor using 3D printing to make a session more engaging, or to speed up or simplify the teaching of concepts that could also be taught in a more conventional way, such as design principles. This type of ‘in passing’ use of 3D printing as a teaching aid may yet come to pay for itself in terms of improved learning outcomes, but the jury is out, and it remains an active research topic.

On the other hand, if we take the view that 3D printing will have a radically transformative effect – and can support vital skills development in many subject domains – then it is surely worth spending money on equipment and time looking at 3D printing on in its own right.

A bigger barrier than expense, I would argue, is speed. While the cost of 3D printing has been falling through the floor (as it becomes commoditised and mass produced), it still takes hours to print anything other than a very small model, which then has to be left to ‘cure’ for a lengthy period. You may find it difficult to share a single 3D printer between student cohorts printing non-trivial models – for example, a class of 40 could easily take a couple of weeks to print an object each, unless someone is prepared to mind the machine out of regular teaching and laboratory hours. There is some very promising R&D on a new method called continuous liquid interface production – which speeds this process up by approximately one hundredfold – but it will take some time to reach the market, and at significantly higher prices than the £400 or so that you would currently expect to pay for a low-end 3D printer. 

3. Once an institution has decided to invest in a 3D printer, what would you suggest as an effective way of introducing it to staff and students? 

As the speed of 3D printing is currently an issue, think about how you use it. It could be that you designate your 3D printer as a specialist piece of technology only to be used for specific project work; or, it could be used to gamify project work, for example, all learners are required to design their own 3D objects, and then asked to vote on their top three models, which are printed as ‘trophies’ for the winners; it could even be that design projects are done within small groups, rather than at the individual level.

It is important to note that the principles of 3D design and object manipulation can be taught without access to a 3D printer, using software such as the open source Blender. This, then, is something that the whole group could be working on, even if the actual 3D printer resource is tied up.

3D scanning is also coming on leaps and bounds – with products like Structure Sensor, an inexpensive Apple accessory, and Google’s Project Tango – and can be turned around much more quickly than 3D printing. This means there is huge potential for learners to scan or create 3D models which they then develop and manipulate, before finally committing them to print. And the actual printing could be done by a third party, for example, Shapeways and other providers.

4. Can you recommend any resources or training programmes which could help organisations and their staff to understand and use a 3D printer?

In addition to the aforementioned Thingiverse and Blender, another fascinating resource for budding 3D printing experts is perhaps less obvious – Minecraft. With its universal appeal across genders and age ranges, Minecraft is an excellent introduction to 3D design – even if its ‘physics’ don’t always match with what you would experience in the real world – like blocks being persuaded to hover in space with no visible means of support. Using an open source tool called Mineways, learners can even save a subset of their Minecraft world for 3D printing.

I’d also point people in the direction of Jisc’s guide on digital 3D content, which covers digitisation, 3D printing, copyright and intellectual property issues, and delivery of 3D content via virtual and augmented reality. It helpfully includes pointers to a number of freely available and commercial software packages, and further advice and guidance for educators who are looking to exploit 3D techniques in their teaching.

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

3D printing is already quite well established in niche areas like engineering, but clearly has more widespread appeal. The lower costs that come with mass production will undoubtedly mean that we will see 3D printers used more often in universities. However, as I noted before, we need to be clear on what we are aiming to use 3D printing for, and realistic about the time that it will take to create larger objects, or work through a queue of objects submitted by a large group of students.

To quote Apple design lead, Jony Ive: “It’s a completely false notion that there is inherent value in what is made by hand, or an inherent lack of value in what is made by machine.” However, Ive has also stated: “When (Apple) started out we made all our own models. Just pressing ‘print’ is an obstacle to designers being close to the materials and the object. There is a lot of lousy design.” We should keep both of these thoughts in mind as we explore the potential of 3D printing.

Free live webinar & QA

The digital difference - Build a culture of reading with ebooks & audiobooks

Free Education Webinar with OverDrive

Friday, June 24, 2PM London BST

In this webinar, hear from Havant Academy Librarian Joanna Parsons to learn how she uses ebooks and audiobooks to help boost reading among her secondary students.