At Printrbot Learn, we are working to ensure that we cater to educators, teachers and learners no matter where they work and no matter if they have a 3D printer already or are thinking of bringing in one into their learning space. 3D printing is an exploding technology. The printers are definitely one of the hottest things on the technology market right now that you can buy. While some schools have had these printers for a few years, there are many more which are now considering buying one to put in a classroom or a computer lab.

These printers are a hot technology and the industry is changing very quickly. When I bought a printer for my classroom, I did  a lot of research to make sure that I fully understood what I was buying. Here is some information to consider when making a purchase.

HISTORY

3D printing is exploding as an industry, but it has been around since at least the early 90′s as a  community. Beginning at places like MIT, the community expanded out after that to people interested in hacking / design / DIY.  This community still exists and is stronger than ever as the rest of the industry has gained international attention. It is centred around the concept of RepRap or self replicating manufacturing machines. A still fairly technical hobby, RepRap printers involve having a knowledge of building, electronics, soldering and software. It is from this community of tinkerers and hobbyists that today’s growing industry is emerging out of.

TODAY

The 3D printing industry today is changing and becoming much more mainstream. This is based mostly around ease of use. 3D printers in the past were sold mainly as kits (or even just lists of parts that you had to find yourself) that involved a fair amount of construction and soldering. Each printer had to be built, the electronics needed to be soldered, and the machines themselves, once they were put together, needed an extensive software set up and calibration process. The difference now is that some companies such as Printrbot, CubeX, Makibox, Makerbot and Afina are selling machines that are constructed and  beyond the initial set up time, are ready to go out of the box. This has opened 3D printing up to a much larger market.

THINGS TO THINK ABOUT

Bringing a 3D printer into a school or classroom needs to be first and foremost about pedagogy and opportunity. As with any other technology, it will do little good to spend valuable budget dollars on technology that you haven’t got a solid plan to use. Shiny gadgets that sit in the corners of rooms and are not used do little to enhance learning.

Assuming that you have that significant hurdle tackled, you then need to move on to other questions and concerns. 3D printers are still a growing, changing technology that is moving quickly and are not as stable and reliable as, say, laptops are. This means that concerns such as reliability, the availability of spare parts, supplies and software upgrades are important. A 3D printer is not like a computer which you buy, install, and upgrades happen automatically and usually easily. These are machines which will need a time investment and some looking after. Unfortunately, there isn’t yet a good, solid measure of all of these factors. As fast as I found this blog post outlining reviews and different factors, I found this post debunking it. There are a growing number of places posting printer reviews and Make Magazine posts an annual shootout between printers that can be used as well.

One thing I learned that I was surprised about was that there are actually few differences in the quality of the models that the printers will produce. 3D printing was an open source hobby for years. Many of the commercial products that you buy are not that many generations away from the days of being open source, hobbyist projects. Overall, most of the models of machines that are available will print models of a very similar quality. Paying more money for a printer will probably not get you a machine that will produce higher quality prints unless you are prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars for an industry quality printer. In fact, most discussions on 3D printers insist that the quality of what you can build is much more dependent on the time that you invest in tinkering and calibration then the budget you spend on the machine itself. Paying more money at this point, will get you a machine that is already assembled, but it will not get you a machine that will necessarily make higher quality models. The only other significant difference between most printers is the size of model that they will produce. Smaller, lower cost machines will generally be able to produce smaller prints compared to higher cost machines.

As teachers and learners, the biggest hurdle to tackle needs to centre around high quality opportunities for learning. Investing time and money into a 3D printer will require that you take the time to think about how it will be used in your curriculum and to support opportunities for students to imagine and create new things in your classroom. In my opinion, these machines are well worth your time, effort and budget dollars, but, like any other technology, they won’t change learning in any significant way unless students are given an opportunity to tinker, make and explore.