Aortic valves, fighter jets, coral reefs… pizza? Just four of the headline-grabbing products dished out by 3D printers over the last two years. Alongside this dramatic experimentation with a not-so-very-new technology comes the usual round of wild speculation: a 3D printer for every home, the end of manufacturing as we know it; 3D-printed firearms, the end of civilisation as we know it. 3D printers that can print other 3D printers… we shudder at the consequences.
And while distracted by the churned-up debate on how the technology will or will not change the world, it’s easy to forget that the 3D printer retains, to a large part, the purpose for which it was created in the 1980s: it is a phenomenal learning device, with a range of applications across the spectrum of STEM subjects.
By Alasdair MacKinnon
The economic reality does away pretty quickly with the idea that the 3D printer has been created to allow us to print on demand, say, spare parts for a broken toaster or a spare set of dinner plates. The economies of scale embraced by the industrial revolution are hardly going to give way overnight to a return to cottage industry. The process of 3D printing itself, the act of layering up minutely thin cross-sections of a design, using specially-produced materials extruded at temperature, is hugely laborious – inelegant, even – compared to the methods of mass production.
So the idea that people would buy an expensive machine in order to repair their other domestic machines doesn’t seem to have much go to it. Fewer and fewer people are even bothering to own a 2D printer.
Where the 3D printer does offer a competitive edge, however, is at the moment of invention – and it is here that its application as a learning tool becomes most apparent. Created by Charles Hull of 3D Systems in 1984 to test engineering designs, 3D printers and other digital manufacturing tools cut the amount of time between design and prototype to days, if not hours – allowing for rapid experimentation in drawing up the shape of an object.
In combination with other computerised tools such as laser cutters, circuit-board printers, they form part of a bank of modern technologies that are beginning to give everyone the opportunity to be an inventor.
For any technology class otherwise doomed (as mine was) to spend a term fiddling away at making 35 identical ugly plastic egg-timers that don’t work, the recent increase in the availability of these tools offers huge potential – allowing individuals to experiment with their ideas and design objects and devices to their own personal specifications.
Initiatives such as MakerBot in the US are currently endeavouring to put “a 3D printer in every classroom”, while the FabLab movement, the brainchild of MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld, has seen the birth of 394 (and counting) digital “fabrication laboratories” across the world.
Where individuals have the opportunity to create what they need, they can also design the solutions to the particular problems their communities. Meanwhile, a new generation of 3D-printer literate schoolchildren will start to look beyond the design of the objects around them – towards the innovations that improve them.
The potential of 3D printers goes far beyond the design and technology classroom, however. The charity TReND, for example, is using 3D printing technology to equip science labs in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the process of digitising its archives the Smithsonian has scanned in a T-Rex skeleton – allowing anyone to become a paleontologist in miniature.
What often puts learners off science subjects is their heavily theoretical side – classes can involve a lot of work on paper, only slightly enlivened by the few standard experiments their school equipment will allow them.
What the 3D printer can do is to bring science and mathematics off the paper and into real life – allowing students, say, to design their own experiments to test physical laws, print their own replica biological specimens or create models to understand chemical structures.
By rendering abstract mathematical theory literally plastic, 3D printing may well provide another way to get learners hooked on science.
Image: Creative Tools