3d printing and education: a workshop report

NERCOMP 2014Yesterday I and two others hosted a NERCOMP workshop on 3d printing for higher education.  The large audience participated very actively, creating fun conversations and a lot of information-sharing about an emergent field.  In this post I’ll sum up the day, based on our materials, my notes,  and Twitter discussions.  It’s a bit long, given the sheer amount of information covered.  It’s also a snapshot of where 3d printing stands in mid-2015.

We began the day with introductions, discovering a wide variety of academic institutions, from community colleges to research universities, high schools and liberal arts colleges. When it came to individual roles and interests, we learned that many people worked in campus IT-related fields: academic computing, desktop or lab support, A/V services. There were also some with library connections, several faculty, and at least one administrator. Every campus represented was interested in 3d printing (obviously), but had actually engaged with the technology in wildly varying levels. Several institutions reported considering purchasing their first or second machine, while others described full-campus deployment under way (U Mass Amherst spoke of 48 devices).

Faculty interest was all over the map, including the sciences and the humanities.  At several campuses faculty members drove 3d printing work, while others saw the IT department nudge machines towards professors.  Several participants noted signs of silo behavior emerging – a sure sign of a technology heading to maturity.

Nearly every participant expressed a desire to learn from presenters.  They learned that they also had much to learn from (and teach) each other.

NERCOMP 3d audience listening to Ian Roy

I then took the floor to introduce the technology and its academic uses.  My presentation aimed for a big-picture view, skimming technical details, making sure everyone was on the same page. I emphasized the rapidly developing nature of 3d printing, sketched out its emergent curricular and pedagogical forms, then offered strategic questions and considerations for implementation. Here are the slides:

Next the very energetic Ian Roy (Brandeis) presented on his institution’s use of 3d printing (slides here).   It was a very rich presentation, and I can only present my view of key points here.

Ian described a very rapid development of a Brandeis makerspace, one which went from zero to 20 printers in 10 months.  That short history included working closely with student groups and individual students, using a fortuitously open library space, and holding hackathons. They now offer a variety of services, including 3d printing and scanning, plus virtual reality (through Oculus Rift) and embedded systems.

Challenges included finding support resources, determining who maintains and owns equipment, obtaining space public enough to attract curiosity while having adequate ventilation.  Best practices were many, such as: having at least one full-time person; carefully managing project intake and scheduling; defining appropriate service norms; assuring room access/safety; using outside entities (peer campuses, trade shows, vendors, a local makerspace) to win community interest; identifying mission-oriented projects (for Brandeis that includes social justice); getting 3d printed artifacts (cup-holders, signs, replacement parts, nameplates, etc) in campus spaces; combining 3d printing and drones; making sure to maintain a sense of fun.

Ian and his team showed a wide range of designs, including a series of prosthetics built in collaboration with university faculty (drawing on this initiative).

Hazal Uzunkaya shows off some Brandeis MakerLab products.

Hazal (“H”) Uzunkaya shows off some Brandeis MakerLab products.

Our afternoon session began with architecture professor and practicing architect John Eberhart (Yale), who introduced us to his college’s record of 3d printing and current plans (slideshow here).  Once again, this was an information-packed presentation, so these notes are partial and impressionistic.

John began by describing a long history at Yale of making, which intensified after 2000 with a collegiate desire to get students making more stuff.  This led to testing out a variety of hardware, including a wax printer, milling machines, consumer- and industrial-grade laser cutters, three axis CNC mills, a plasma cutter, a water jet cutter, a Croma foam cutter, Makerbots, the TAZ and Dimension printers, a polymer printer, and an Objet, among others (!).

After such extensive experimentation, John and his unit his on a major paradigm switch.  They decided to stop using expensive printers (and costly output) in favor of cheaper ones (Makerbot, TAZ).  This meant changing the way students and faculty thought of 3d printing, switching from a model of representation to one emphasizing design.  This proved enormously successful, as 3d printing use took off, moving from 50 to 2500 jobs in just one year (2013-4).  Now Yale maintains a MakerBot fleet, each device houses in a big, climate-controlled locker.  Students now see 3d printing as a normal part of academic life.

Yale's printer farm

Lessons learned include: setting up online printer job management so students and faculty can track progress; charging students by the weight of their final product; having students process G-code; setting up an open printing and hardware ecosystem alongside a closed one; teaching first-year students to think through media including multiple forms of 3d printing.

John concluded by describing a projected university-wide support model, which would include central support services and widespread deployment of hardware.

We concluded by comparing recommendations for nearly every part and practice of the 3d ecosystem.  Actually, participants starting sharing lessons learned and preferred tools right from the start, so I’ll make them easier to grasp by listing them all in one spot. (For the record, I’m not taking sides on these recommendations, just noting discussion. I’m also happy to receive corrections for any transcription mistakes)

1. Software

3d file editing: some participants approved of netfabb, MeshLab (open source), MeshMixer (sample videoSolidWorksRhinoFusion 360 (Autodesk), 123D (Autodesk), 3DSMax (Autodesk), Tinkercad (also Autodesk), OpenSCAD (free and open, but requires command line interface).  People had mixed feelings about Sketchup in terms of price and file format. Some interest in Onshape (forthcoming).

Scanning: 123d Catch (Autodesk), Skanect (Occipital).

Printing management software: PrintToPeer and Octoprint. Yale built their own program and open sourced it, RepRancher.

2. Hardware
Recommended printers included Printrbot, the MakerGear M series, FlashForge, B9Creator, Ultimaker 2, the TAZ series, and PowerSpec.  Some fierce love for the open RepRap ecosystem. Also Bukito (portable).

Scanners: Xbox Kinect, DAVID.

Several people recommended standardizing on Simplify 3d for all hardware for smaller institutions.

3. Practices

Be aware that “creating a model is 90% of the work”.  Students are essential for spreading the word of 3d printing, for supporting it as volunteers or workers, and also require training.  One campus reported assigning students to determine the best software for 3d production.

Challenges: getting older programs to generate 3d content.  Coping with how long it takes to print objects, and how much supported is needed.

Keep an eye out for creative and innovative uses of 3d printing, like this clothing design, which uses an accordion style to save space.

Concluding thoughts: we touched on financing 3d printing, but didn’t proceed in enough depth.  Participants were very energized by 3d printing.  Ian Roy’s repeated assertion that 3d will be as disruptive as the internet gradually disturbed and/or delighted people.  Overall, a dynamic, inspiring day, a glimpse into a rapidly developing field.

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9 Responses to 3d printing and education: a workshop report

  1. davidjhinson says:

    Reblogged this on Logorrhea.


    • Thanks, David.
      Where are you seeing 3d printing in education?


      • Here’s David’s reply, which WordPress choked on:
        “At Hendrix, we were using it to model Theatre sets, in Art for Design, and had even made some inroads into the Anthropology department, scanning and printing stone tools (a couple of years back, a student broke a 10,000 year old original stone tool, so there is some real “value” to handling replicas rather than the real thing in class).”


  2. We’re a local New England area reseller of 3D printers exclusively to education. We represent Stratasys, Makerbot and other digital fab lab technologies. We have over 300 educational sites in the six New England states using Stratasys professional class 3D printers. These sites range from middle schools, comprehensive high schools, vocational centers, technical colleges. Universities and research labs. Feel free to contact me for more specifics.


  3. We’re kicking off a free 3D printing workshop for Alumni here at The College of Westchester tonight! Really a fascinating medium and one that is seeing quick growth and increasing innovative adoption.


  4. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2015: education and technology | Bryan Alexander

  5. Pingback: Teenagers 3d printing local history: technology, pedagogy, and inspiration in Vermont | Bryan Alexander

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