3D Printing: Impacting The Minds Of The Future


3d_68538388By Nigel Brockbank.

Schools everywhere are changing. We can see technological advances impacting schools and the way children learn everywhere. More recently, 3D printing has been making its mark on the minds of the future. It has certainly caused a stir in the media of late, but what are the benefits to the ways in which our children learn and how will it impact our future? 

Teachers and students are rapidly adopting 3D printing in the classroom environment. Unlike the ‘workshops’ of the past, where you learnt to perhaps use timber or metal fabricating tools, 3D printers are being used more broadly across disciplines to assist in learning activities and enrich the education process. Starting with a CAD (Computer Aided Design) file, teachers and students can ‘print’ artifacts. These CAD files can be downloaded from existing sites online or can be generated by students and staff using 3D software packages such as ‘Sketchup’. The ability to print a 3D model has proven to increase engagement and motivation for students to learn 3D CAD as the results are tangible and interactive, giving students a greater sense of accomplishment and are able to apply them to real world applications or enrich their learning experiences. 

Generalised 3D print process 

3D printing becomes a compelling tool in any classroom; the possibilities are endless. A teacher can model DNA structures in a science class. History students could download scanned data of historical artifacts and talk directly to those artifacts in class. Business students could print products and learn basic trade principles by holding a stall at the school fair to generate income for more material for the printer. Robotics classes can have students design their own quadcopters, fabricate the components and scan the topology of the school grounds for a geography lesson. The applications of the technology are certainly much broader and valuable than just the exercise of operating a machine. 

We hope, as educators and parents, that we can best prepare our students to meet the demands that the future workplace will ask of them. Many universities are now offering Masters in Additive Manufacturing (AM) course streams, and have adopted elements into Engineering, Design and Architecture undergraduate programs. It is certainly seen as an important part of the future of manufacturing and design. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, last year declared, in reference to 3D printing, that he wanted to ensure that, ‘the next revolution of manufacturing is made right here in America’. The Japanese Prime Minister has also declared that 3D printing is a ‘national imperative’. The CSIRO here in Australia has been developing the means to process our metal resources to ‘value add’ to our mineral wealth which may also give our manufacturing sector a competitive advantage on high value components.

3D printing or Additive Manufacturing (AM) has certainly come a long way since its first conception during the 1980s. The important shift that has occurred in more recent years is the development and release of affordable ‘plug and play’ desktop 3D printers, such as the well-known brand Makerbot. Using a CAD model, these printers heat a plastic filament to bond vertical layers of the material together, to almost magically reveal the intended form.

Many materials are used in 3D printing. Plastics, resins, chalk base powders, paper, concrete, ceramics and metals are now all being used with varying technologies. Each material has its own strengths and weaknesses. A commonly used plastic in desktop printing is PLA, as used in a Makerbot Replicator printer, is a corn starch derivative and is considered to be a sustainable and more ecofriendly material than petroleum-based alternatives.

3D printing comes into its own when producing ‘one off’ or low volume parts at very low cost and fast turnaround. In a world where manufacturing is centralised in developing economies, 3D printing offers developed economies an opportunity to accelerate design cycle times and develop new technologies at low cost for testing and implementation without waiting for sample parts to be shipped around the globe. A part can be printed overnight and tested the next day. This is the world our students will inhabit.

During my time teaching at RMIT University, within the department of Industrial Design in Melbourne, I witnessed an amazing transformation of my students as they began adopting rapid prototyping and later 3D printing technologies. As part of the course, CAD is an important skill that is used to develop their design outcomes.

Students were very comfortable in this environment, but lacked the real world connection to material, fit and function. Along with a colleague at RMIT, we taught students to build 3D printers and that gave them the freedom to explore the technology at a much faster pace than they would have been able to had they had to wait for a print service bureau. It was also much cheaper, with parts costing only a few dollars, students could afford to make mistakes, evaluate their work and respond to it more meaningfully.

The results, while not always perfect and placed under some time pressures, were certainly ‘valuable’ to the student learning experience as communicated by them. As they better understood the technology and the medium, they began to push and rethink what was capable through this form of manufacturing over design for traditional methodologies.

In an age of consumable commodities, the project focussed on using rapid prototyping technologies, but blending traditional craft techniques to value add and personalise a product to better connect designers, products and buyers.

Some of those outcomes can be found here:


Through multiple iterations of design thinking and product evolution using their 3D printers, these students were able to reduce the time to manufacture, the amount of material consumed during the print process, and improve the quality of the end result. Students gained a greater understanding of the material and its mechanical properties, as well as its limitations. They were able to improve on tolerance fit and refine the design aesthetic iteratively. Since these projects, these students have continued to incorporate these learned methods into their current design projects.

At both public and private schools around Australia, similar things are happening to that at university levels. Teachers are introducing 3D printing into furniture classes, printing patterns for investment casting of jewellery pieces, and with 3D printers are better equipped to tackle an ever evolving classroom environment. The future has never looked more fun to be at school than right now.

On a final personal note, I have three 3D printers at home and three little girls. My second child is now four and was watching TV when a commercial came on for a toy that extruded fake cupcakes. I was delighted when she turned to me and in place of asking me to buy it said, ‘Daddy, we can make that on our 3D printer!’ The future never looked as bright to me.

Nigel has been involved in 3D printing and rapid prototyping technologies for many years, with experience using a broad range of 3D printing technologies in plastic and resin based (Stratasys, Objet, Makerbot) and metal printing (SLM). He has taught both within the departments of Industrial Design and Engineering at RMIT University in Melbourne, within RMIT’s Advanced Manufacturing Precinct (AMP). He has instructed students in the construction and use of 3D printers, as well as design for additive manufacture. He has an avid passion for manufacturing and how technology can empower it.

For more information, please visit: www.thinglab.com.au


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Education Technology Solutions
Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.

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