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Question of the Week: Selecting A 3D Printer For Education

Learning 3D printing [Source: Fabbaloo]

This week’s question is about selecting 3D printers for education.

Fabbaloo reader Bart asks:

”I am currently putting together a whitepaper to enhance our school’s tech program and wanted to include 3D printing. I came across your site when doing my research and was wondering if you have any suggestions, or pointers on what to look for in a 3D printer for the Education space (not sure if you can recommend specific brands to look at and/or stay away from).”

I’ll stay away from brands, but there are plenty of functional aspects to consider. However, we must first start with some questions.

Who’s Using the 3D Printer?

The first item to determine is the age levels of the students, as there will be quite a difference between, say, first-graders exploring the basics and seniors who might be developing advanced science projects on the equipment.

For the younger grades there are several aspects I’d consider when selecting equipment.

If the purpose is to introduce students to basic concepts of digital manufacturing (3D model in software becomes physical object), then it would be advised to reduce the amount of technical effort required and focus on that basic workflow.

Thus you should select a machine that’s proven to operate in a simple manner, with materials that are known to match. There’s little benefit in having students spend hours trying to make “filament X” work on a machine. Look for machines with print profiles for known materials.

For lower grades there are also safety concerns because younger students might have fingers with a bit too much curiosity. There are machines, for example, that lock the build chamber door during printing to prevent finger burns or getting caught up in the motion system. Enclosed 3D printers will be far safer in that respect than open format devices, but they will cost a bit more.

That said, enclosed machines must have a window for students to observe the printing process, and it’s preferable to have more than one window for this.

3D Printer Safety Concerns

Further on safety, machines using a filtration system are advisable as they can produce VOCs and nanoparticles. Look for machines with combination HEPA/activated carbon filters.

For lower grades I would advise against using resin equipment because most liquid photopolymer resin is toxic to touch or breathe. Usually extra room ventilation is required. Careful handling procedures are required to safely process resin prints, especially after printing. Students may not follow procedures closely, and that’s not a problem you want to create.

For higher grades the students might be expected to safely handle more challenging equipment and materials, and they are probably using the equipment less for understanding concepts and more for doing project work. This loosens up the requirements and offers more selection of equipment.

3D Printer Material Choices

While the safety concerns always remain, one way to start the machine search would be to identify materials to be used. Here’s some thoughts on materials:

  • For basic 3D printing, PLA or PETG are excellent materials that are very easy to 3D print and more accessible to education budgets.
  • For more advanced mechanical parts you could consider ABS (or ASA for outdoor UV-exposed applications), but they are much harder to 3D print due to warping.
  • Flexible materials are very tricky to 3D print and usually require specific equipment or options, but they open up many possible applications if you’re willing to take the trouble to handle them and buy the correct equipment
  • In some very advanced high-grade scenarios, it may be that students may require engineering materials like nylon or other exotic choices.

Once you’ve determined which material(s) students will focus on, then you should have enough information to chase down suitable machines. The material choice will constrain the machine choices. You may have to buy different machines to address different material requirements.

Also note that depending on which country you’re from there could be different manufacturer choices. Some manufacturers sell equipment only in certain regions.

3D Printer Course Materials

Another consideration beyond equipment and materials is course materials. There are some 3D printer manufacturers that specifically focus on the education market and thus produce accompanying documentation, models, course outlines, projects and a lot more. These could be far better choices than simply buying a 3D printer and building all that material yourself.

To illustrate how important this is, consider that typical 3D prints take hours. Many hours. Sometimes days. This leads to highly impractical situations where 20 students in a class might wait days for their turn on the machine. However, the manufacturers focusing on education usually provide specially designed 3D print projects where the print time is minimized while maintaining the learning opportunities. In some cases the project might print the parts in only an hour. That’s very hard to figure out on your own, so it’s advisable to go with an education-focused 3D printer manufacturer.

3D Printer Maintenance

Service is also a big concern. While experienced 3D printer operators will know this well, those new to the technology might not realize that these machines are inherently mechanical and they break frequently. You’ll certainly experience jams, nozzle crashes, hot end blobs and worse. Whatever machine you buy, it will break down.

There are a couple of approaches to keep these breaks in check. Consider buying from a reseller that provides a service program or learn how to fix them yourself, which would be quicker in practice. You’ll also need a “hygiene” process to ensure machines are kept clean and tidy.

Another approach is to buy at least two of each device. This ensures that at least one machine will continue to run even if another has failed. It also aids in diagnosis as parts can be swapped from one to another to isolate problems.

The good news is that there are plenty of great choices to address these concerns, and prices are at the lowest level ever. There has been no better time to buy 3D printers for education.

Hope that helps!

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