What is 3D Printing?

Also known as rapid prototyping, 3D printing refers to technologies that construct physical objects from three-dimensional (3D) digital content such as computer aided design (CAD), computer aided tomography (CAT), and X-ray crystallography. A 3D printer builds a tangible model or prototype from the file, one layer at a time, using an inkjet-like process to spray a bonding agent onto a very thin layer of fixable powder. The bonding agent can be applied very accurately to build an object from the bottom up, layer by layer. The process even accommodates moving parts within the object. Using different powders and bonding agents, color can be applied, and prototype parts can be rendered in plastic, resin, or metal. This technology is commonly used in manufacturing to build prototypes of almost any object (scaled to fit the printer, of course) — models, plastic and metal parts, or any object that can be described in three dimensions.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • The most interesting aspect of 3D printing is the expansion of knowledge tools from the flat and abstract to the tactile. The educational potential of 3D objects in, say, college mathematics is similar to the role of manipulatives in elementary school mathematics. However, after following this area with great interest and enthusiasm, I'm a bit pessimistic about the rapid impact of 3D printing in the next few years, for two reasons:
    • the availability of inexpensive, easy-to-use printers has taken longer than many of us had hoped - there are some inexpensive printers but they have rather poor resolution, reliability, and ease-of-use.
    • the creative use of 3D printers requires 3D design software that's accessible, and the ability to design in 3D. There's no 3D analog to Photoshop, and even if there were, 3D is conceptually far more challenging than 2D. - amichaelberman amichaelberman Oct 3, 2010
  • Cheap 3D printers will allow students to design and rapidly prototype all kinds of models from engineering to architecture - JamieMadden JamieMadden Oct 5, 2010
  • I have been running a 3D printer for the past 6 years. I would agree with Jamie that getting to a consumer friendly 3D printer has taken longer than I expected. One significant issue with these devices is that few operate well on a intermittent basis, they function best under regular use, so combined with the cost of the device and the materials, it is something that is currently best left to service bureaus. In fact, I am strongly considering getting rid of my hardware and outsourcing my printing. I am less pessimistic about the modeling side. For most the models we create the data are collected and edited in the software programs of the disciplines using them and increasingly they have the capability to export to 3D printers.- alanwolf alanwolf Oct 8, 2010

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(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • The description of 3D printing about describes just one technology - their are several other promising approaches. The most inexpensive printers use a process that squirts a glue-like material through a syringe. It's not clear at this time whether an existing technology will reach the threshold of usability and cost to become widely used in educational settings, or whether this will require some fundamentally new approach that's yet to be invented or not yet well-known. - amichaelberman amichaelberman Oct 3, 2010
  • MakerBot? - JamieMadden JamieMadden Oct 5, 2010
  • The ability to print in multiple colors that allows prototypes/models to more than representations of the shape, the color palette of the virtual model - alanwolf alanwolf Oct 8, 2010.
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(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

  • More work with 3-d materials: art, architecture, engineering, urban design, sciences. - bryan bryan Sep 29, 2010 - helga helga Sep 30, 2010
  • Until the issues described above are addressed this will remain a niche and have impact only in certain areas. - amichaelberman amichaelberman Oct 3, 2010 Agreed. - crista.copp crista.copp Oct 17, 2010
  • The use of 3D printing in relation to rapid prototyping indicates a significant potential for use within the medical field as demonstrated through the production of surgical guides and other aids associated with computer-aided surgery and training. This has application within medical education environments, as well as research (i.e., use of the technology in the peripheral such as eventual tissue printing). So, with respect to these applications, the impact is balanced between the use within the learning environment and creative, as how it is applied is definitely a creative perspective and generalization of the technology. - Dougdar Dougdar Oct 5, 2010
  • I agree with what Dougdar has written, rapid prototyping on the cheap will only help students better their models for a higher quality graduate outcome. - JamieMadden JamieMadden Oct 5, 2010
  • My colleagues have explored the value of the used of physical models in learning biochemistry - http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2649655/ I believe that we will see similar results in other disciplines. Further, more and more this technology is used directly in engineering and product design and it will benefit the students to be exposed to the techniques in their academic preparation - alanwolf alanwolf Oct 8, 2010.

(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

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