I, Technology: 7 reasons why schools need 3D printers

It is no great disclosure to say I am a governor of a local secondary school, but perhaps I should be honest about my own love of new technology, electronics and gadgetry of all kinds. As a post-modern, dyed in the wool geek, I do sometimes – okay, often – have a habit of getting excited about such shiny things, looking for uses where perhaps none exist.

In the case of 3D printing however, I’m pretty sure the engineers are on to something. I first saw such a printer in action at the Renault Formula 1 team’s headquarters, where it was used to print out prototypes of aerodynamic parts, which could then be tested in the wind tunnel. This particular printer was the flat-bed type, using laser interference to heat up specific points in a bed of resin. Drain away the remaining fluid and the part would emerge, almost majestically.

Other models of 3D printer exist, notably ones that create objects through extrusion of quick-setting materials, which can then be built upon layer by layer. The result isn’t necessarily an object of beauty – there’s only so much you can achieve by squeezing epoxy out of a tube. But both the capability, and the pieces that emerge, open new doors to down to earth, home-brew innovation.

Consider, for example, the RepRap open source 3D printer project that can actually create printer parts. Such a device does require some components that cannot be printed – steel bars, circuit boards and so on – so using the term “self-replicating” is a bit of a stretch. However the majority of pieces can be printed, as can spares, should anything break.

While the range of applications is pretty broad, or indeed, perhaps because of this, one potential “market” for 3D printers is education. Let’s consider some reasons why:

  • Low cost of entry. Equipment to be used in schools on design courses takes an inevitable hammering, and therefore needs to be robust – a quality which comes at a cost. Education is facing a financial squeeze as much as any other sector, so 3D printers offer an option for providing lower-cost equipment which can be repaired locally without (expensive) third party intervention.
  • Basis for creativity and innovation. While design equipment can be criticised for taking away the need to develop hands-on skills, it also offers the opportunity to develop more complex designs using parts that can be built on.
  • Wider world online interaction. Open source 3D printing communities exist which offer, share and advise on design templates – these can be downloaded and used, or indeed uploaded for comment. This enables a shared forum where students can benefit from the knowledge of both peers and more experienced designers.
  • Outreach to other schools. Changes to UK educational policy (for example the academy programme) has put schools more in charge of their own destinies, and provided more authority and responsibility. At the same time, this has encouraged more interaction between schools, both at a peer level and between secondary and primary tiers. 3D printing offers an opportunity to both share and enable, for example “printing printers” and taking them into primary schools.
  • Business acumen. 3D printers offer an opportunity to produce items that have real-world uses, on more than a one-off basis. The opportunity to create simple toys or ornaments which can potentially be marketed and sold, albeit with the cost of raw materials, offers insight into both manufacturing process, market understanding and business development.
  • Genuine real-world skills. 3D printing may be in the domain of the early adopter right now, but continued advances suggest that it will become more of a mainstream capability. For example, in several years’ time 3D printers may be more common in homes and businesses. If so, knowledge of how to create and print appropriate designs will become useful.
  • Direct use for schools. There is no reason why parts need to be limited to students’ design projects. A 3D printer could be used to create items which are of real use to the school – for simple examples consider coat hooks, doorknobs and other fittings.

While the future of 3D printing is unclear, already uses are emerging that were not even considered by the original creators. For example the epoxy resin can be replaced by chocolate or sugar paste to make confectionery; printed parts can be milled to add more complex features; no doubt we will see printers with new features and techniques and using new materials, allowing for new types of design.

Maybe we will never be able to print a flat screen TV, or a car, or a house, but right now the low cost of entry opens up a wealth of possibilities. It would be folly not to investigate further – indeed, it’s what education is all about.

[This article first appeared on ZDNet]


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