3D printing is certainly one of the areas of STEM education that can appear daunting to get into. For many educators, the complexity and alien nature of 3D printers can often seem to be too big a challenge to take on while maintaining their already heavy workloads. However, to those who scratch beneath the surface, a fantastic world of opportunity awaits.
In this ‘intro to 3D printing’, Planet CodeBot will guide you through the basics of choosing, owning and operating one of the most useful and frankly cool pieces of technology you could hope to have in a school.
Why should I care about 3D Printing?
Lets imagine for a minute that one day 3D printers become a common household object. Most people who have computers and regular printers in the home now also have 3D printers. In this hypothetical home, the antique food processor breaks! It’s a complex plastic cut off switch, and it’s not the type of thing you can buy anymore. Luckily, the company is still around and they sell their old parts as .STL files for a small fee. Now, you go back to your 3D printer and print your part right there. You now have a functional appliance once again, without ever having to leave your home.
The benefits of 3D printing are plentiful; you don’t have to wait for shipping, there is not the environmental cost associated with shipping, and you’ve reduced waste by not throwing out that food processor that works in every other way! This also benefits the company, as they can generate revenue off of their intellectual property without continuing production.
3D printing is a versatile and consumer-friendly approach to manufacturing. Large companies are already using 3D printing to produce quick & precise prototypes in minutes, which previously would have taken days or weeks to acquire. In the not too distant future, 3D printers will be common place in businesses and homes around the country.
Types of 3D Printer
Just like there are different types of car (electric, petrol, diesel, etc), there are different types of 3D printer. As this is a beginners’ guide to 3D printing, we will focus simply on the main types on offer.
Also known as DLP (digital light processing) or SLA (Stereolithography Apparatus) printers, these use an ultraviolet light to cure liquid UV resin into solid objects. Resin printers are growing in popularity amoung hobbyists, as they are capable of producing incredibly detailed parts, especially when compared to FDM printers.
While Resin printers are excellent for certain tasks, they demand a lot more care and attention from a safety aspect. Resin is an irritant and can be harmful when coming into contact with the skin and eyes. It also needs to be disposed of properly and should only be used in a well ventilated space. As such, a Resin printer is not the best option for someone looking to introduce 3D printing to a school environment.
Filament Printers (FDM)
FDM printers (Fused Deposition Modeling) are devices that use spools of filament instead of a liquid resin. FDM printers feed a strand of thermoplastic material through a hot extruder which melts it down. The melted plastic can then be printed precisely into place by the print head. The melted filament is deposited one layer at a time.
There is a wide range of FDM printers which will suit every size, job and budget imaginable. Entry level FDM printers start from under £200. Filament spools are also relatively inexpensive, starting at under £20 per kilo. FDM filament comes in a huge variety of colours and materials, including wood, metal and colour changing varieties.
Their price, relative ease of use and lower safety demands make FDM printers a perfect choice for a school or educator looking to get into 3D printing.
Choosing a 3D Printer
A cursory glance at Amazon will show you that there are many different makes and models to choose from. Finding the right printer for your circumstances will require a little bit of groundwork first. The last thing anyone wants to do is spend hundreds of pounds of their budget on a new device, only to later realise that it isn’t capable of performing the functions you wanted it to.
There are many different features and parts to consider when owning a 3D printer and we cannot cover them all in this article. Here are a few important areas that you should consider before committing to buy.
- Build volume – This is the space that a 3D printer is able to build in. Build volume is typically measured in cm³. The larger the build volume, the larger the objects you can print.
- Filament types – There are many types of filament and they all have different uses. Even the most basic of printers will usually be able to print with PLA or PETG out of the box. These filaments are easy to use and demand very little of your printer. Other filaments, such as ABS require an enclosure to work best. The more demanding filaments, such as those with nylon, wood or metal fibres added, will require higher heating temperatures or heated beds to work properly.
- Heated & Flexible Print Beds – The print bed is the area that the print head deposits the melted filament onto. A good print bed can mean the difference between a smooth, well finished print and a useless lump of plastic that is welded to your machine. Flexible print beds can be taken out of the printer and allow for easy removal of the print with minimal risk of damage to the printer or print itself. Heated beds allow for greater adhesion and open your printer up to a wider variety of filaments.
- Community & Modding – The 3D printing community is excellent and thrives on its open source nature. Talented members of the community create and share their own files for free online. One area that 3D printing really excels in is community modding. It is possible to find and print or purchase a wide variety of optional extras for many of the most popular printers on the market. If you will want to improve your printer as time goes by, make sure you don’t pick an obscure brand.
- Company Credibility – One often overlooked area when it comes to buying a 3D printer is the credibility of the company producing it. Don’t be fooled – 3D printers can be incredibly frustrating when they choose to be. From print beds that just won’t level to extruders clogging up, 3D printers can and will break from time to time. Buying a printer from a company that provides lots of documentation, support and advice on their website is a simple and effective way to ensure you spend more time printing and less time troubleshooting.
Ask anyone with a 3D printer and they will tell you their personal preference. From my own experience, I have found the Flashforge Finder & Flashforge Creator Pro to be excellent devices to learn on and explore with.
The Finder is an great budget option that allows for quick and simple printing at a low entry price (£250 at the time of writing). The Creator Pro falls into the middle tier of 3D printers and offers dual extrusion, a heated bed, a larger build space and lots of opportunity to expand with modifications.
From a Primary school perspective, both Flashforge models feature more enclosed designs, with minimal access to moving gears, pulleys and parts – perfect for environments where curious little hands may be a factor to consider.
Coming Up (Part 2)
In order to ensure a high quality article written to reasonable length, the information will be split up into several smaller parts.
In part 2 of our ‘Intro to 3D Printing’ guide, we will cover:
- Where to find 3D files to print.
- How to create your own 3D designs to print in the classroom.
- Using slicing software to print your files perfectly.
- And much more.