3D printing is a process for making a physical object from a 3D digital model – most printers do this by laying down thin layers of a material on top of each other.
There are many different types of 3D printers. In New Zealand there are two consumer-level technologies available.
3D printed objects are built up layer-by-layer, and very complex shapes can be created. The process itself doesn’t generate much waste – unless something goes wrong and you have to throw the whole object away. There are also raft and support elements generated by the slicer software to ensure a successful print. These need to be removed and discarded after printing.
To produce a 3D printed object you need a computer model. 3D models are produced using a variety of applications such as TinkerCad , Sketchup or Blender . Online libraries like Thingiverse or YouMagine allow models created by other people to be downloaded, modified, and printed.
The most commonly used file format for 3D printing is .STL (an abbreviation of stereolithography). This format has become the de-facto standard due to wide adoption by the 3D printing industry and is a safe choice, especially if you are sending files to someone else to be 3D printed. Other common file formats are .OBJ, .AMF and .3MF.
Much of the skill in 3D printing comes from creating digital models which can lead to many areas of employment.
Being a competent creator of 3D models supports future-focused learning
"Future focus is about supporting learners to recognise that they have a stake in the future, and a role and responsibility as citizens to take action to help shape that future."
Learning occurs when students design and create objects for a purpose
3D printers are simply a tool, like a photocopier. There is little to be learned from choosing a 3D model designed by someone else and watching it print. Learning occurs when students use this tool to design and create objects for a purpose.
3D printing helps students conceptualise and visualise their designs as they progress through the development stages from a sketch to the final product. Students can experiment with ideas, problem solve, and grow their creativity.
While the printing itself isn’t usually the focus of learning, it’s important to note that the ability to turn computerised 3D models into actual physical objects is a highly motivating, tangible outcome for students.
While 3D printing is most relevant in the Technology learning area, many learning areas can benefit from integrating 3D modelling and printing. You can plan an integrated STEAM approach, or use the printer within a specific learning area as needed.
The NZ Curriculum values of ecological sustainability, and innovation, inquiry, and curiosity are also relevant.
Kits that contain electronics, wheels, and metal parts are available for purchase. They also ship with .STL files so the students can 3D print the plastic parts themselves. This is a useful way to introduce the idea that the whole project doesn’t need to be 3D printed.
Myles Webb from Auroa Primary School shares how year five and six students have used 3D printing to create solutions for problems in their school community.
In Technology, 3D printing supports learning across all three strands as well as the digital technologies progress outcomes.
Technology projects often require prototypes to be created. Students can design and print parts that are customised to the particular outcome they are trying to achieve.
If a student is building a machine using a single board computer such as a micro:bit, they can design and print a custom case to hold the board. The case can be bespoke and perfectly adapted to their individual project with channels for wiring, mounting points for screws and holes for access to buttons. This sort of prototyping was virtually impossible for schools in the past.
When designing and developing a processed outcome, custom food moulds and other containers could be produced to satisfy particular briefs.
Making sure your technology solutions are fit for purpose and meet the needs of your stakeholders is a vital part of the technology design process. Being able to manufacture the same object, but in a number of variations, enables students to test their designs with a group, or with the stakeholder/end-user. Objects can be immediately tested in the real world. For example, they can be tested to see if they fit in the hand of the user, or are able to be safely mounted on a bicycle. The 3D models can be adjusted as a result of testing and a new version can be printed and re-tested.
When identifying an authentic context to drive learning opportunities, consider these questions:
Creating 3D computer models supports learning in mathematics.
3D models can be created according to descriptions from books, and then printed. This requires close reading so students can translate a fictional object, building, or character into reality. They can create, in the real world, what they imagined as they read the text.
Free software such as Sculptris allows sculpting of a virtual ball of clay – pushing, pulling, and smoothing the surface to create an organic-looking model. Combined with Meshmixer (free), the Sculptris models can be 3D printed.
3D printing allows complex shapes that would be difficult to create any other way. It’s as easy to print a complex shape as a simple one. If you can model it, the printer can print it (in most cases).
Institutions such as the Smithsonian make high resolution 3D scans available. These can be printed by students on 3D printers and then examined, hands-on.
It’s often easier for students to understand how objects work when they can examine them physically.
Many 3D models are available to print and use at all levels of the school.
In primary schools, objects from books or characters from stories can be printed and handled.
In secondary school:
There is a collection of apparatus for physics experiments on Thingiverse. These designs can be printed and used, or modified to fit other purposes.
While 3D printers are getting cheaper, it’s still a significant purchase for most schools. The following advice is adapted from Choosing the right digital device (a guide developed by the Connected Learning Advisory). Use it to plan how you will maximise the use of your 3D printer.
Consider how the 3D printer will:
You should expect to encounter these issues sometimes, and they can be challenging if you have time-pressure or there is high demand for use of the printer.
Lower Moutere School principal, Chris Bascand relates the story of how a Year 8 student lead the researching, fundraising, and purchase of a 3D printer for the school. He explains how the printer is being used for learning.
At Raroa Intermediate School they have four 3D printers. Design Production Education teacher, Chris Bailey explains some planning considerations for students printing.
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VLN discussion and Webinar: Using 3D printing in real-world contexts – Information about types of 3D printers, practical tips to consider when purchasing and using them, as well as contexts and examples of effective use. Useful for anyone starting out, or already using 3D printers.
The Otakou STEAM cluster in Otago has a 3D design page with tutorials, links and ideas.