Tuesday, 27 November 2012

3D Printing in Education

3D printing has been popping up in the most unlikely of places. While you may have seen recent articles in the technology supplements how many of you would have expected to see a piece while reading Easyjet's inflight magazine? I didn't, but it certainly distracted me from the man with no sense of personal space on my flight to Cyprus last month.

Some people might be surprised to learn that the process has been around since the 1980's. As with much technology the cost was prohibitive so while engineers, manufacturers and universities have been using the technology to create prototypes it has, until recently, not been available to the general public. 
The sudden surge in interest has been mainly down to costs significantly reducing recently, allowing more people access to the technology.  While top end machines still run into the hundreds of thousands machines such as the the Makerbot Replicater2 can be bought for a little over $2,000. Not quite on par with your average desktop printer but not exactly millionaire territory either. And if you don't want to buy a machine yourself there are plenty of online services willing to create your object for you. 3D printing is rapidly becoming a serious commercial entity.

Anyone watching 3D printing for the first time might be forgiven for attributing it almost magical status. However the process is relatively simple. Using a 3D scan or model as a template 3D printers work in much the same way as your desktop inkjet. The difference is that instead of just one layer of 'ink' a 3D printer continues to build up layers until the finished model is created.

These layers can be made up of nearly anything - liquid, gel, plastic, powder, even chocolate. For complex shapes some machines use a support material which is removed once the final model is complete. Other techniques involves using an laser to solidify a synthetic liquid. Another, such as this one from Mcor, uses paper as it's raw material. Regardless of the technique the beauty of this type of fabrication is that it is flexible, relatively fast and doesn't have the large start up costs of traditional manufacturing. Basically, if you can model it (or get someone else to model it for you) you can print it. 

In the US 3D printers have already infiltrated the public library with them now available in some MakerSpaces such as this one in Westport Library. Having worked in public libraries I can easily see why business services such as those run by Manchester Libraries might embrace 3D printing as part of their remit.  When you consider the issues surrounding copyright and IP there really might be no better place to have them. Not only could an inventor learn about patenting their creation they could see it realised as a prototype at the same time.

However 3D printing caught my interest initially due to it's artistic possibilities. I flirted briefly with 3D modelling  while studying sculpture and the major disadvantage to me was that it was prohibitively expensive to have anything created in a physical form. Even though there may have been a 3D printer squirrelled away in the engineering department, as a lowly art student I certainly didn't have access to it. My 3D renders stayed just that, renders on a 2D screen. Yet if I was working on the same items today it would be a relatively simple process, and certainly a much cheaper one, to send my model off to one of the numerous online services who offer to make it a reality.


Once on the subject of art and design it didn't take long for me to start thinking about other uses in  education. While it might be tempting to dismiss 3D printing as a gimmick, especially while print quality on the cheaper machines is still questionable, there are seem to be some interesting applications that shouldn't be discounted.

This case study from the British Columbia Anthropology Museum explains excellently just one of these application - giving students access to objects that would normally be to precious or fragile for students to handle. While in this case the objects are museum specimens the same process could easily apply to unusual medical items such as deformed bones or organs. Take this a step further with the consideration that 3D printers are already capable of printing living tissue  and the applications within medical schools, and indeed medicine in general, is endless.

As an FE librarian however my focus is a bit more mundane. While it would certainly be beneficial for our students  to have access to specimens from other institutes I'm not sure how much it would really excite them. For me it is the process of seeing a creation come to life which would really engage students and so it is these applications that I see as the real selling point of 3D printers. It's exactly this process which is described by the University of Nevada who have recounted the enthusiastic response to their newly acquired 3D printers.

With a little research it didn't take me long to come up with some ideas, many of which will already have been put into practise elsewhere, such as can be seen in this video from  Clevedon School. These include:

  • Edible decorations for catering students.
  • Specialist tools and parts for engineering students
  • 3D models across a variety of courses including geography, architecture and science.
  • Character creation across a number of courses including English and Game Design
  • Various applications in ceramics and 3D design where imagination could literally be the limit.
  • Design and creation of unique musical instruments.
  • Design and creation of circuit boards in computing and electronics.

One idea I especially like links into the enterprise remit of many colleges, including my own. Instead of asking students to develop a business idea why not give them a design brief and have them see the process through from market research to finished prototype. What better way to end such a project than to have the finished designs created by the students!

I'm sure many teachers could find an application for 3D printing in their work and although machines are few in schools and colleges at the minute it's likely that the situation will rapidly change. It'll be interesting to see the outcome of the current government study that is exploring the capabilities of 3D printing by providing equipment to a number of schools across the country.  I just hope that this equipment won't become the jealously guarded property of IT departments because their scope for use across the entire curriculum seems endless, limited (almost) only by imagination.