Overcoming the barriers to 3D printing in the classroom

3D printing can have a huge impact on education, if used wisely, says Kevin Samuel, Business Development Manager for Y Soft UK

Once a niche market, 3D printing is now dominant in the tech headlines. In the educational sector, institutions are experimenting with incorporating 3D printing into their curriculum. 3D printing is being used to explain complex STEM concepts and to help prepare students for the next generation of career paths. 

3D printing has an undeniable positive effect in education by increasing students’ motivation and stimulating their curiosity

Various studies, including an in-depth project by the Department for Education have found that 3D printing has an undeniable positive effect in education by increasing students’ motivation and stimulating their curiosity. However, schools struggle on a large scale when it comes to successful long-term integration of 3D printing into curriculums. Many schools lack technical administration for 3D printers and are unable to manage access and control costs.

Y Soft recently commissioned independent global research into the thinking and adoption of 3D printing in the education sector. Through this research, we discovered that an overwhelming 87% of educators are restricting student access to 3D printers. Furthermore, more than a third (35%) of educators cited an understanding of what 3D printing can do in their curriculum as a challenge. So, what are the key issues that restrict the access of this technology? 

Top challenges that surfaced in the survey included costs being too high or difficult to control, under-utilisation of the printers and instructors not understanding how 3D printing can enhance the curriculum.

It’s essential that these challenges are addressed so that educational institutions can move forward with 3D printing and use it to its best ability within the curriculum. It is clear that educators understand the value of 3D printing and the survey results indicate that purchases will continue – 77% of respondents confirmed the plan to increase the number of 3D printers in the near future. However, it’s also clear that a wider print management strategy needs to be integrated.

Some of these challenges are very similar to the challenges that 2D printers once had – or in some cases still do – present to educational institutions. For example, current fleets of 2D printers are carefully managed by each school’s IT and finance teams. Students simply send a document to print, go to the nearest printer, perhaps log their details using a student card, and pick up the document. Larger schools and universities may have a pay-for-print system so that they can recover costs. 3D printer fleets need to operate in a similar manner.

With 3D printing there are longer print and wait times due to the nature of the job. School administrators and IT managers need to integrate 3D print management software with their network of printers to ensure they can trace every print-job and access reports to understand print volumes and who is printing what. This therefore aids the billing process to individual department codes or project codes for example. This will help educational institutions manage, account for and even recover their costs. Similarly, a system that uses a card or PIN, held by teachers or students can also promote and track appropriate usage.

This in turn also helps with the issue of restricted access to 3D printers, which largely defies the point of introducing them. Y Soft’s independent survey found that restricted access was either by locking the printers in a room, requiring special training or by only allowing educators to print on the student’s behalf. With a login system in place connected with centrally managed device-locking mechanism, you can ensure authorised-only access to the 3D printer. Since this prevents unauthorised withdrawal or interruption of jobs, there is no need to limit the accessibility of the device.
With these issues addressed, it will become easier for educational institutions to integrate 3D printing into the curriculum. As they become more comfortable with the technology, it will be used not only in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics) subjects, but also in a wider context for general motivational purposes. 

Educational institutions now need to take the same approach to 3D printers that they do for 2D printers and embed print management software. This will enable them to stay on top of and monitor costs. 

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