Could 3D Printing Revolutionise Education?

  • Could 3D Printing Revolutionise Education?

Although 3D printing has been around since 1984 it is still a relatively young technology. Media interest and coverage would tend to suggest that anything and everything has the potential to be 3D printed – from busts of Beethoven and novelty items to prosthetics, not to mention whole buildings and aircraft. One thing is certain: 3D printing is an emerging technology, which is undeniably going to revolutionise aspects of industrial manufacturing. So what will be its impact in schools and why should students learn about its potential? In 2014 the D&T Association managed a 3D printing project on behalf of the DfE, which aimed to develop the use of these technologies in STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools.

The over-riding message to come out of this programme was that if 3D printing is to be used for anything other than printing out pre-drawn, downloadable files from the internet, it requires understanding and expertise in the use of 3D CAD. Competence in using this software is essential if students are to be able to draw and then print their ideas. Consequently, teacher knowledge of 3D CAD is also essential. Although CAD software is getting easier to use it still requires a significant investment of time in order to gain mastery. In most schools it is in Design and Technology departments where this takes place in the curriculum - and it is difficult to see the use of 3D printing spreading to other subject areas in secondary schools without the involvement of the D&T department.

A second message was that managing expectations is essential. Many teachers entered into the project with little or no knowledge of the technology. In these cases the expectations of what was achievable from 3D printing in schools was often unrealistic. For example: the print process is slow and, once you have seen it once, not particularly interesting to watch; pieces produced tend to be relatively small; and, in most cases, the technology is better at producing component parts of larger objects rather than complete objects themselves; finally, if you can produce the desired outcome more effectively using other manufacturing processes then do not 3D print it. Why, for example, bother to draw and then print a DNA helix when you can purchase one from any supplies catalogue? As with all tools there will be occasions when it’s more appropriate to use different techniques. Here are just a few examples:

When not to 3D print

  • You need lots of the same parts – 3D printing is not very fast so check other methods such as CNC moulds and vacuum forming or injection moulding.
  • For secondary manufacture – 3D printed parts can be used to create CNC machined hard tooling for large quantities or soft, silicon tooling for short production runs.
  • You need lots of different parts – you may not have the capacity to 3D print class sets of individual designs. Hand techniques or hand operated machines may be the only way you can do this.
  • Flat shapes – it might be better to laser cut or profile flat shapes.
  • Material is not the best – the materials for 3D printing are limited so what manufacturing processes do you have for the ‘ideal’ material (e.g. Nylon, PTFE, acrylic, solid timber, plywood, metal)?
  • Boxes – would it be better to laser cut and assemble a box or create one using folded sheet techniques?

(From an article by Tim Brotherhood and Stuart Douglas, D&T Practice 2:2014, D&T Association)

These factors also caused schools to reflect on how they would develop the use of 3D printing in the future. The general feeling was that having multiple, cheaper printers was a better alternative to one or two more expensive machines. One school actually equipped its 3D design lab with 12 printers so that students, working in pairs, all had access to a device.

The most successful schools were those who were enthusiastic and not afraid to innovate. This meant that on some occasions the work being undertaken failed, but still provided significant learning as a result. In schools where the D&T teachers leading the project engaged colleagues from other subjects it resulted in higher quality work which also helped demonstrate the inter-relatedness of STEM subjects. Often in these schools it also allowed the D&T department to emerge as a curriculum innovator and to demonstrate the true value of the subject as a contributor to STEM.

The primary schools involved made excellent use of entry level CAD software, often using tablet computers. Pupils were able to make high quality, realistic outcomes whereas the previous norm has been to use modeling materials such as paper, card, small section wood and Plasticine with the results often being of low quality. As a result pupil motivation and engagement was enhanced and the schools also reported a positive impact on numeracy and literacy when projects were recorded.

In secondary schools the use of simple CAD software enabled staff in subjects other than D&T to use the printer and engage students in all ability ranges. In addition, students with good experience in the use of 3D CAD were able to make more complex products than was possible using existing manufacturing processes and GCSE and A-level coursework projects were improved through the use of 3D printed parts. The use of 3D printers in extra-curricular STEM clubs also worked well because there was less pressure linked to curriculum requirements and innovative projects and approaches could be tried out with smaller groups and less fear of failure than if this had been attempted in curriculum time.

3D printing is revolutionising industrial manufacturing and in schools, used wisely by confident and competent teachers, it has the power to engage and motivate students across a wide range of subjects, demonstrate 21st century manufacturing processes and so help modernise teaching and learning in D&T and other subjects.


Richard Green is Chief Executive at The Design and Technology Association (