So Many 3D Printing Options. How to Choose the Right One?

If you’ve looked into 3D printing, you know there are a lot of options – some good and some not so much. Since the technology is just beginning to enter classrooms and is new for most schools, choosing a good partner and printer is important when diving head first into this new world. There are plenty of schools which have experienced problems from purchasing machines that are no longer serviced or weren’t made well, and avoiding these missteps can save everybody a lot of time, money and headache.

How are 3D Printers being used?

A good place to start is figuring out which classes will benefit the most from the printer, which in many cases are engineering, science, art and math classes. Some examples we’ve come across in the past are:

  • Math classes creating bridges to hold and test weight
  • Art classes creating objects around the holidays and festive seasons
  • History classes teaching Egyptian or Roman civilization periods where students create the great buildings of those time periods
  • Science classes who create the tools which can be used for research

In simple terms, printing physical objects brings new engagement to existing coursework, and a different way to interact with lesson plans which is exciting and new for students. Here’s a great story from elementary and middle school educator Karen Winsper, on her experience setting up and using a 3D printer in her elementary classroom.

3DPrinter w Computer

What to consider?

Once you’ve decided which classes will benefit from the new technology, it’s time to decide which printer makes the most sense for you. One size does not fit all here! Think about these primary factors when doing your research:

  • Print size – How large are the size of the objects we want to print?
  • Purpose and outcomes – Are the prints going to be used more for show, or are they going to be working parts within a robot or tool set? This will help you decide whether you need a printer which creates extra durable and flexible objects.
  • Durability and support – How can we make sure the printer we buy will last a few years and won’t become obsolete?

The good news is that prices have and will continue to come down as more machines come to market, so it’s conceivable to get a 3D printer that will last for years, for under $1,000. The flip side of that coin is there are so many options available now, it can be challenging to filter through the printers that provide sub-par performance on a relative basis. Working with a partner that can provide 3D printing expertise and doing your research on the best machines are the best ways to ensure you make the right choice on a printer, materials and professional development.

So, a little work upfront to research the right printer options and train staff can go a long way to setting up a successful 3D printing program. You would be surprised how many schools have purchased a 3D printer in the last couple of years, only to realize that they don’t know how to use it properly or the machine wasn’t that great to begin with. A day or two of work after the printer arrives gives everybody more than enough knowledge to get printing in their classrooms right away, and avoid lots of headache.

Kids 3D Printing

The learning curve

In other words, there is a learning curve involved with operating 3D printers! First you have to familiarize yourself with the software that runs the machine. Many printers can use open source platforms such as Cura, which have large community forums that allow for easy learning. Others will have proprietary software solutions which are easy to navigate but do take time getting used to.

An example of a challenge which you’ll run into often is temperature controls. A PLA plastic (one of the most widely used materials for 3D printing) is going to have different temperature and print speed settings than a flexible nylon material, so you’ll have to input these settings into the software before hitting print. It’s also important to understand how to prepare the print bed, which is the platform that the material is laid down on. A basic rule of thumb is to keep the platform level and free of any bumps.

Also consider the safety concerns that come along with removing prints after they’re done. Some come off easily but others will require a small sharp object for removal, which requires gloves for your students. While these details may sound small, they are the little pieces of the puzzle that when put together create a well oiled 3D printing machine! It’s taken some schools years to figure this out and we’re here to try and help you be successful from the very beginning.

What else?

Some other items to think about when getting your 3D printing space together include professional development options, which design software to choose (many are free and we highly recommend a program called Tinkercad) and whether the printer will be stationary in a lab or classroom, or will need to be mobile. These questions will save you time during the process of searching for the best 3D printing solution, and ensure you’ve made an informed choice.


Feature image courtesy of Flickr, dvanzuijlekom.

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