The K-12 Educator’s Guide to Buying a 3D Printer

September 15, 2016

Technology in Education

So you want to buy a 3D printer? After all, isn’t that what all the schools are getting these days? With makerspaces, STEM, and STEAM all the rage, it’s no wonder 3D printer sales are at an all-time high with schools being one of the fastest growing purchasing groups.  Before you run out and spend hundreds (or thousands) of your school’s dollars on just any 3D printer, here are a few tips to consider.

Do you really need one?

I’m not trying to sway you from buying a 3D printer. 3D printers are great and can produce some pretty amazing things when used correctly. What I am saying is to seriously think about how often you’ll use it. As a technology teacher and facilitator for 10 years, too many times I saw perfectly good and often expensive technology sitting around not getting used, or at least not getting used to its full potential. If that happens at your school, or worse yet, in your classroom, I recommend skipping the purchase of a 3D printer for now. There are a growing number of websites that offer 3D printing services. All you have to do is upload a design, pick your material, and you’ll get your design shipped to you in a matter of days. The upside is of course you don’t need to purchase an expensive 3D printer or all the accessories that go with it.  You also can select from a growing number of materials including plastics, metals, and even porcelain. Many 3D printing websites also give you great tools for ensuring your design is printable (for example, is a closed surface). The downside is that an individual object will cost you more to print (think potentially $50 instead of $5), and you’ll miss out on experiencing your design being brought to life right in front of your eyes (personally, I could spend hours gazing in awe at a 3D printer in action).  Check out 3D printing websites such as Shapeways for more information. If you’re still convinced you’re in need of your own 3D printer, read on.

3D Printing 101

Although it’s not necessary to go into full detail of how a 3D printer works, I still find it helpful to have a basic understanding of terminology such as FDM, microns, and filament. FDM is an acronym for Fused Deposition Modeling, and is the most common 3D printing process. In FDM printers, thin layers of thermoplastic filament (think ink cartridge for a traditional printer) are heated to its melting point and extruded onto a build platform. The layers build upon one another to ultimately create your object. An object’s resolution, measured in microns, determines how thick each of these layers is.  Unlike pixels with picture resolution, the higher the number of microns of a 3D print job, the lower quality it is. For example, a resolution of 100 microns is more detailed than a resolution of 300 microns. It will also take about three times longer to print and use a lot more filament. For most of what I print in the classroom, I use the printer’s “draft” resolution which is set to 300 microns. In draft mode, I can print more objects and at a faster rate. Sure, the objects aren’t as clean as they’d be if printed with a higher resolution, but I’ve not seen a student yet disappointed by their finished 3D printed designs. It is also important to note that there are two kinds of plastic – ABS and PLA – and only one of these should be used in a school setting because of potentially harmful fumes. ABS plastic produces strong fumes and should only be used in well-ventilated areas. On the other hand, PLA plastic is derived from plants and is considered safer to use in spaces that aren’t as well ventilated. The 3D printers detailed later in this article all use PLA plastic.

Before you Buy

Consider many factors before purchasing a 3D printer. For a lot of us, the most important factor is probably budget. We can dream all day long, but at the end of the day someone has to pay for it whether it be the school, the PTA, a generous parent (hey it happened to me!), or grant money. The good news is that 3D printers have become amazingly inexpensive over the past few years thanks to advances in technology. What’s considered a plug-n-play, budget printer can now be purchased for as little as $269 (on sale). Other larger and somewhat more sophisticated 3D printers popular in schools run in the $1000-$1500 range.  Of course, there are many more expensive 3D printers than can run upwards of $7,000.

In addition to budget, really consider what it is you intend to print with the 3D printer. Will students be expected to print small objects, or will they be printing scaled replicas of cityscapes? For most of us, it’s the former choice, and therefore, a smaller 3D printer will work just fine. It’s always a good idea to get the measurements of the 3D printer’s build platform and take a good look at how that size supports or limits intended print jobs. The last thing you want is to purchase a 3D printer only to not be able to use it like you need to in class.

Any idea where you’re going to put a 3D printer? If not, it would be wise to figure it out. For many teachers, it will likely go in your classroom. But what happens when the teacher down the hall would like to also use it, or what’s it going to be like trying to teach while the 3D printer is working on a six hour print job? The noise can be distracting not to mention every child in the room becoming fixated on watching the 3D printer work its magic. Take it from me who has had a 3D printer in my classroom; although I loved having the access and used it all the time, it got hard trying to teach with it printing in the same room. My personal recommendation is to locate it as close to your room as possible in a safe and shared space if possible. It’s important to have eyes  on the printer regularly while printing. Just like with paper copiers, sometimes print jams happen and when they do on a 3D printer it can be a real mess. That’s also why I’d try to start print jobs as early as possible in the morning, so that I could keep a close eye on all or most of a print job before leaving school in the afternoon.

Another factor to consider is ease of use. Do you plan on students being able to run the 3D printer themselves with little or no help from a teacher? Like most teachers, I found that I didn’t have the time to constantly be calibrating and starting print jobs, yet I had a hard time shifting that responsibility completely to students. The particular 3D printer I had required calibrating before every print job and was connected directly to my teacher computer.  If you’d like to train others whether they be students or teachers to run the 3D printer, you’ll definitely want a simple plug-n-play 3D printer that also does not require constant calibration and uses the easiest form of data transfer for your class whether it be USB connection, Wifi, or SD card. My printer used a USB connection or SD card. Because the software for the 3D printer was loaded onto my teacher computer as opposed to all the computers in the classroom, my desktop was connected directly to the 3D printer. This made it difficult to let the students have the full control they needed to operate the 3D printer. If you’re going to put the software on a central computer and connect that computer via USB to the 3D printer, I highly recommend using a shared and easily accessible laptop or desktop computer. Of course, having a Wifi connection makes things much easier but many lower cost options don’t have Wifi capabilities.

Inevitably you’re going to run into issues at some point in your 3D printer journey. When you do how will you get help? Is there a dedicated IT professional at your school who may can offer some assistance, is there a customer service number or email address, or what about a user forum with commonly asked questions? My classroom’s 3D printer had excellent resources to assist me if I had a problem. The company had a great website with video tutorials, commonly asked questions, and overall customer support. You know that feeling of genius you get when you Google how to fix something, find the right resources, do the fix, and everything magically works again? Yeah, that was me every time I went to my 3D printer’s website. They made it really easy to feel smart. A good 3D printer manufacturer will do that.

Five 3D Printers Under $1000

XYZ DaVinci Junior – Retails for $349, but can find on sale for $270
*Tech Terra Education’s founder Susan Wells swears by the DaVinci Junior calling it “effortless”. A downside is that you have to purchase their filament which can be more expensive.

The Micro – Retails for $349
*Comes in a variety of fun colors

Printrbot Play – Retails for $399

Dremel Idea Builder – Starts at $799 on Amazon
*Has a great library of tutorials and help resources

Polar 3D Printer – Retails for $899
*Another teacher favorite

In conclusion, don’t take buying a 3D printer lightly. There are many options to consider, but the good news is that 3D printers more affordable and easier to use than ever thanks to technological advancements and a heavy demand from K-12 schools.  Have fun selecting a printer and happy creating! 🙂

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