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Can Your School Justify the Cost of a 3D Printer?

February 19, 2019, 16:01 GMT+1
Read in 4 minutes
  • Early experiences with new technologies aren’t quite as central to the classroom as they once were, says Gary Spracklen...
Can Your School Justify the Cost of a 3D Printer?

While 3D printing is still a relatively new technology, it’s already had an impact on the manufacturing sector. The resulting reduction in tooling costs and increased pace of product development have already changed the game in meaningful ways, but the biggest changes have yet to come. So is now the time for your school to get involved in the 3D printing revolution?

I can still recall the joy I felt as a child from discovering the latest technology in school. It was at primary school that I first used a graphical user interface, CD-ROM media and an inkjet colour printer – all of which felt revolutionary at the time. At secondary I accessed the internet for the first time and made use of CAD tools in my D&T classes.

However, as technology has continued to progress and consumer electronics have become cheaper (while school budgets have got smaller), classrooms are now less likely to be the place where children get to experience new technology first.

In many cases this is an understandable evolution, since the technology that children are most likely to carry on their person – be that a tablet, smartphone or smartwatch – is almost unrecognisable in terms of processing power than the devices I used in my classrooms all those years ago. It’s what’s led to ‘Bring Your Own Device’ policies becoming increasingly commonplace – but I’ve yet to come across a ‘Bring Your Own 3D Printer’ school.

Compared to mobile devices, gaming consoles and to a lesser degree, virtual reality headsets and programmable drones, 3D printing remains relatively niche. In 2017, only half a million 3D printing units were sold globally; to put that into perspective, 216 million iPhones were sold over the same period. Yet while the numbers are small for now, they’re growing – fast.

Today’s desktop 3D printers are cheaper and better than ever, and continue to improve. However, the educational benefits of purchasing a machine for use in school have to extend beyond just the novelty of seeing a machine print in 3D for the first time. For that, you can simply watch a YouTube video.

To link the device with learning, you’ll need to develop pupils’ CAD design skills in order to generate the STL files that tell 3D printers what to do. For some, this will be where the challenge sits.

Creating an STL file can be a complex task that involves industry standard software applications such AutoCAD or Solidworks – both of which are expensive and require powerful computer hardware in order to run properly.

Thankfully, however, there are some alternative solutions available for primary schools. SketchUp and Purple Mash are two tools I’d highly recommend to help you get started on your 3D Printing journey.

In terms of whether your school can justify the cost of a 3D printer, there may well be a dedicated core group of ‘primary school enthusiasts’ who would benefit from having a dedicated machine available in their own setting.

It’s much more likely, however, that primary schools wishing to explore the world of 3D printing will seek to share a device based in the D&T department of a local secondary school, further education college or university.

In short, only buy a 3D printer if you’ve designed something in 3D to print – if not, borrow someone else’s…

Gary Spracklen is headteacher at The Prince of Wales School, Dorchester, a former Digital Educator of the Year and a member of the government’s Educational Technology Action Group.

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