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Tech Talk Live Blog

Implementing 3D Printers in an Educational Setting

Don Dagen


Remember from last week’s blog that there are three categories of printers:

  1. Professional grade, $20,000 and up,
  2. Mid-level grade from $1,375 to $6,499, and
  3. DIY grade from $100 to $2,000.

Most of my personal experience comes from the purchase of a Printrbot Simple roughly a year ago.  I have also worked at several companies that used outside 3D printer services from category 1, pro grade.

I am a pretty serious tinkerer and a degreed mechanical engineer, but I do admit I struggled with the assembly of my kit from Printrbot.  The category 3 printer companies are usually startups, potentially staffed with zealous, but inexperienced employees.  The documentation for building my printer was lacking.  As one of the strongest performers in this category, I suspect that Printrbot has improved this area in the past 12 months.

A month later and 20 or so prints of varying success, my printer quit working due to a nozzle/extruder jam.  Eventually I was so frustrated that I stopped trying to get it working.  About this time I shifted the fledgling maker group I had started in Adamstown to Lancaster city (Pennsylvania), and we began meeting at The Candy Factory; the group is now known as Make717. One of the new connections I made was with a fellow Printrbot Simple owner, Ben Eisemann.  Ben invited me over to work on my printer problems.  I immediately learned things that I never did from online or internet delivered technical support.  My printer was not only working again, but with improved quality.

Another connection I made during the winter of my printing discontent was with Matthew Gorton, who was founding a new filament supply company called Printed Solid.  Filament is the plastic raw material the printer uses to make prints, it looks much like cord for your weed wacker.  He had a wealth of knowledge on materials, printer settings, etc., and quickly detected I was allowing my printer to “cook” the plastic by letting the filament sit hot in the nozzle for extended periods of time, which caused the material to jam the nozzle.

A third connection I made during this phase of my 3D printer learning curve was a teacher from Wyomissing who had a group of high school students who wrote a grant and purchased a printer from Category 2.

Curt’s Story

From my first exposure to Glenn Adams’ printer about 3 years ago, followed by my high school students visit to a maker event in January 2013, they obtained the information to write a grant, and obtain our Makerbot Replicator 2X. It was a blessing to have a pre-assembled machine because the ease of producing our first prints right from the SD card that was pre-loaded with cool STL (STereoLithography) items helped build the excitement in the classroom. I am afraid we would have lost a lot of energy and momentum if we would have been mired down in building a DIY kit or stuck using a less than user-friendly machine. The portability and robustness of the Makerbot with sidewalls has allowed us to transport it to numerous student showcases, maker events, our elementary school, to students’ homes for weekend printing, etc.

Our students created this website about a year ago, when we entered the 3D printing world.  The website is their sole creation. Be sure to see the photo gallery , the blog(including the older posts) and the YouTube video that the students edited.

We are excited to add three Printrbots to the school’s inventory from attending the Build-Your-Own library workshops this fall.

Use in Education

Design, materials, iteration, and CAD skills are embedded in the process of using a 3D printer.  Educational groups may be built around a specific interest like competitive robotics, jewelry making, drones, etc.  The open-ended nature of 3D printing means that a broader range of students can be attracted to this technology.

The Wyomissing group did a great job of incorporating entrepreneurial aspects into their 3D printer group.  They supported the purchase of more resin by selling 3D printed phone cases with the school logo!

Almost all 3D printers are based on 3 axis of linear motion that is used throughout manufacturing in automation and robotics applications.  CNC (Computer Numerical Control) equipment also is based on the same principals of moving something precisely using something known as G code.  The relevance to future career fields is immense.

The Cost Implications

After the initial purchase, the main cost will be filament.  Two pounds will usually cost about $40.  Category 1 or 2 printers may use a proprietary cartridge that will increase the cost per pound dramatically.  This picture will give you some idea of how many parts can come from one roll of filament. Other costs will include spare parts, having a backup extruder may be the best way to keep your printer running at all times.

Choosing a 3D Printer for Your Organization

I think Curt’s approach is one that should be emulated.  His students did a fantastic job of presenting their experiences to our Make717 group.  They blended academic rigor with something fun and engaging.  There is no doubt in my mind that those students are on a great trajectory towards some fulfilling STEM-related career field. Starting in the Category 2 printer world allowed them to start printing quickly, but if you read their history it was not easy for them to learn how to use this tool.

Depending on the tinker factor of the group, the low end DIY kit build may work, but it will require patience, persistence, and being connected to local 3D printer experts.  If you compare my experience to Curt’s students you would probably conclude you do not want to purchase a printer from this group.  I think that may be true in most cases, but if the “maker” factor is high in students and instructors, then purchasing a low cost printer and building it may introduce richer learning opportunities.  If you are interested in building a printer for yourself, you can contact a Maker group in your area to see if they are offering any classes.

Conclusion

If you choose to venture in, don’t do it alone!  Find and connect to local 3D printer makers!  If you are local (Southcentral PA), consider joining Make717 at our monthly meetups, or follow me on Twitter, @DonDagen​.  Keep me posted on your progress!

Don Dagen is an instructor at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology, a new product development consultant, and a makerspace founder (Make717). Don is a Mechanical Engineer with a broad range of technical experiences in project, design, R & D, technical/automation sales, quality, and manufacturing engineering.  His interests lie in education, manufacturing and business development within automation, servos, robotics, and industrial vision solutions. He has also dedicated some of his spare time to teaching robotics to elementary-aged kids!

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