3D printers in the classroom

Digital fabrication and ‘3D Making’ technologies are a prominent recent addition to many secondary schools, hastened by the increased affordability of Computer Assisted Design software and devices such as 3D printers, e-textiles and microprocessors.

One of the digital devices that we have been coming across in our study schools is the ‘UP Plus’ 3D printer – retailing for around $1600 and clearly being sold to Victorian schools on the promise of ‘new’ and/or ‘innovative’ forms of teaching and learning.

Printers like the UP Plus understandably tick a number of boxes for schools. Digital design and production has been introduced into school curricula around the world. In Australia, for example, ‘Processes & Production Skills’ has emerged as a key component of the emerging ‘Design & Technologies’ strand of the Australian curriculum.

This new curricular emphasis on ‘creating designed solutions’ is seen to relate to learning in the areas of math, physics, engineering and creativity – thereby offering a potential means of addressing long-running educational concerns over the need to encourage participation in so-called ‘STE(A)M’ subject areas, as well as developing design thinking and/or ‘twenty-first century skills’.

Such rhetoric notwithstanding, it is worth reflecting on the slightly underwhelming presence of 3D printers as they actually exist in schools. These are not the large rapidly moving machines that one tends to see in news reports and in industrial settings. Instead, most of the printers being used in schools are certainly at the lower end of the market.

The UP Plus – for example – is manufactured by the Beijing TierTime Technology Company. It weighs 5kg, stood 350mm tall, 245mm wide and 260mm deep, with a printing speed of between 3 to 30mm3 per second. The printer is capable of producing small handheld objects of up to 140mm width, 140mm depth and 135mm height – although the manufacturer’s advice is that smaller objects stood a better chance of successful fabrication.

The printer works via a process of fused deposition modeling (FDM) – where filament is heated up, softened and deposited through the printer’s computer-controlled cartridge onto a flat surface where it cools down and hardens. This process is repeated over a large numbers of layers (measuring 0.15mm each), so that an object is built up vertically and horizontally over a succession of repetitive passes of the printer’s nozzle.

In our study schools, at least, the preference is for printing with variously colored spools of thin (1.75mm) strands of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic. ABS is a lightweight thermoplastic polymer that is easily used in injection molded processes. ABS is relatively strong, resistant to scratching or denting, withstands temperatures of up to 80 degrees Celsius and is recyclable. Perhaps the most familiar use of ABS is in LEGO bricks, as well as drainpipes, plastic instruments, automotive trim and computer keyboards. It is also the preferred material for hobbyist 3D printing, with a standard roll of 250 grams retailing for around $20.

As a relatively cheap printer, the UP Plus performs this process at a slow but steady pace. The melting of the ABS can result in a faintly acrid smell. The printing process also involves an initially discomforting (but soon familiar and almost rhythmic) bursts of mechanical noise – whirring, beeping, grating, clicking as the small motors and pulleys move the nozzle back and forth.

Yet perhaps most surprising is the rough and ready nature of everything that is produced through these devices. The objects that we have seen produced have tended to be rudimentary in form and functionality. For anyone unfamiliar with 3D printing, the end products are surprisingly imprecisely made and crude in appearance.

To avoid ending on too downbeat a note, it is worth reminding ourselves that the act of 3D printing in school is a sophisticated use of digital technology that a few years earlier would have been difficult to envisage. The excitement and enthusiasm surrounding this new technology is therefore wholly understandable. That said, a number of contentions and contradictions need to be explored surrounding the provenance of 3D printing as educational ‘innovation’.