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3D printers: A buyer’s guide

By Trevor Takayama 2/27/2018

Update: Two years ago, I wrote an article about 3D printers and 3D printing, because it was new, fresh, and the current fad. Back then I wondered if the craze would last.

Now, I’m asking myself: Has the fad died down? I think it has died down, but that doesn’t change how important it is for spatial and creative learning. Its effectiveness is still the same as it always was and that’s valuable in the classroom. Prices have dropped for some of the cheaper 3D printers, but the mid- and high-end printers haven’t changed in price.

You may have heard about all the cool things 3D printers can do. If you’re a math teacher, maybe you’ve thought about letting your students make their own manipulatives or get hands-on in geometry with 3D solids. If you’re an economics or business teacher, perhaps you’ve considered assigning students a project to design, market and sell their own 3D-printed products. Or maybe you’re a science teacher interested in exploring 3D models of cells, atoms or DNA with your students.

Wait! Slow down. Before you jump into purchasing and integrating this new gadget into your classroom, take a moment to consider the logistics and realities of becoming a 3D printer user. Here’s a basic FAQ I’ve developed based on my own experiences and extensive research into classroom 3D printing.

What are the challenges?

I was so excited about 3D printing that I bought a printer without much forethought and worked out the kinks after the fact. The good news for you? You can learn from my mistakes.

Here are four things to consider before deciding to buy a 3D printer for your classroom or school:

Funding. The main factor for implementing technology is usually cost. With the range of budget options now on the market, you could get a 3D printer for your school for under $500. But how will you get $500? Check your school’s technology budget, the parent-teachers association, local grants from ISTE affiliates, or start a fundraiser. Keep in mind that big sites like DonorsChoose.org might cost more than expected because of their shipping and processing fees.

Learning goals. Before you integrate any new technology into your curriculum, make sure it will help meet your learning goals. 3D printing can make a lot of things possible that were inconceivable in the past, such as using 3D design on a computer to teach Common Core mathematics standards, including concepts like coordinate planes, geometry, area, perimeter and volume. Students can create 3D designs on Tinkercad.com, which is perfect for K-12 classrooms. They just need a Google account or email address to sign up. Teachers print the 3D designs for students to use, measure and prototype.

Printing time. One drawback to 3D printing is the long print times. Print times vary depending on quality, size, detail and the printer, but printing a simple 2" x 2" x 0.5" 3D heart, for example, would take at least 20 minutes. A whole class’ 3D designs would take hours to print. However, you can keep the printer running in the background while you conduct class, as it doesn’t require constant attention.

Learning curve. Teachers who embrace new technology often leap into 3D printing, but it is worth noting that 3D printing is part mechanical. There is an initial learning curve for both using the printer and for keeping it maintained and working. It is not like fixing software errors on a computer. It’s more like fixing a LaserJet printer without the expertise of local tech support. Be ready to Google any problems or quirks that arise during your 3D printing experience, as it’s not uncommon for the more affordable printers to break down.

Which printer should I get?

Which printer should you choose? It depends. 3D Hubs separates 3D printers into five categories: enthusiast, plug ‘n’ play, kit/DIY, budget and resin. The most popular printers are in the enthusiast category — MakerBot Replicator 2, Makergear M2 and Ultimaker — but they cost over $1,700 each. When you spend that much, you get a quality printer. But you can get similar results with a $400 version. Competition in the last few years has shifted the price point way down while keeping reliability and quality on par.

Ideally, your first 3D printer should be both plug ‘n’ play and budget, which is a small field. Here is an analysis of the three plug ‘n’ play, budget 3D printers — all of which came out just last year — that stand out above the rest:

Monoprice MP Select Mini. According to 3D Hubs, this is a fine budget 3D printer. Cost: $219

Pros:

  • Smallest of the group
  • Easy to use

Cons:

  • Not a well-known 3D printer brand
  • Not enclosed

DaVinci mini w Wireless. This is a smaller version of one of the first budget 3D printers, the DaVinci 1.0, and newer, updated version of the DaVinci Jr 1.0. Cost: $289

Pros:

  •  Easy to use
  • Compact

Cons: 

  • Usses only XYZ PLA filaments making printing costs expensive
  • Mixed ratings

Flashforge Finder. Cost: $399

Pros:

  • Color touchscreen
  • Wireless printing

Con:

  • More expensive than the cheapest 3D printers

What other materials do I need to buy?

Using a 3D printer carries a higher cost than the machine’s price tag alone because it requires so many other supplies. Here’s a list of all the things you have to buy at a minimum to do 3D printing in your classroom:

3" blue painter’s tape. To print on top of  (instead of the print bed)

Isopropyl alcohol spray. To clean tape. You can buy this at any local drugstore.

Tweezers. To remove strands of melted plastic.

Scraper/putty knife. To get 3D prints off the print bed.

Spring-loaded wire cutters. To cut off supports and excess plastic.

Wiping cloth. You need only one of these.

PLA filament. This is the raw material that the 3D printer uses to create objects.

The three printers listed here use PLA, which is a plant-based plastic. (ABS plastic, which is not safe for classrooms, requires a heated bed and an enclosed 3D printer.) PLA spools cost $20-$30 per kilogram and last a while, depending on how much you print. For example, 1 kilogram of PLA could make about 500 1-inch hollow cubes. You will probably want various colors. I recommend buying popular hues, such as white, black, blue, pink and green.

The cost of these supplies is about $30. The total cost depends on the number of spools of PLA and the type of 3D printer you choose. On the low-end, you could get started for under $300 and on the high-end, maybe around $500 for a budget setup.

What kind of software do I need?

Every 3D printer comes with free, proprietary 3D slicing and printing software, unless it allows open-source software. Cura, from Ultimaker, is the most popular open-source software to use, and Printrbot is the model on this list that uses it. If you buy a Micro 3D then you will use Micro 3D software. If you buy an XYZ printer, you use XYZ software.

Each software program has its advantages and disadvantages, but they all do the same things: load 3D object files, allow the user to edit objects and send objects to the 3D printer. It might go without saying, but don’t forget that you will also need a computer to run the software and connect to the 3D printer.

Can I test-drive 3D design in my classroom without buying a printer?

Yes. Have your students create 2D or 3D designs with perimeter, area and volume measurements on graph paper, based on the Common Core standard you are teaching. Then let them re-create those designs on Tinkercad.com, a free online 3D design program. These steps alone will cover third through sixth grade math standards and show you how successful 3D printing could be.

So should I get into 3D printing or not?

I can’t answer that question for you, but I can tell you why I am into 3D printing: I have never seen technology that intrigues my students the way 3D printers do and allows them to creatively design and make their own prototypes. 3D design is so open-ended that it allows teachers and students to use their creativity to adapt it to any curriculum and standard.

3D printers are also the only tool I know of that combines design with manufacturing and art with technology. If you’re a technology or science teacher who is interested in teaching about engineering concepts, the 3D-design-to-printing process is an effective, hands-on way to teach about the design and prototype process.

Now that prices have come down even more, 3D printing is more viable than ever before for schools. There are risks inherent in managing any new tech tool, including spending too much time to do what you could do with graph paper and clay and the anxiety of wondering if your 3D printer is going to work every day. But I think it’s an effective technology tool that cannot be ignored, and it’s just a matter of time before 3D printers are ubiquitous in K-12 schools. You just need to decide if you have the time, budget, tech savvy, and patience to be an early adopter.

Trevor Takayama is a K-6 technology teacher at Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools in Massachusetts. With a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's degree in Educational Technology, Trevor loves the use of STEM, especially 3D printing and MinecraftEdu, as educational tools.

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Karey
359 days ago
Thank you for the detailed report on 3D printing! This answers many of the questions that I have as our school considers 3D printers for our scholars in grades K-5.