Getting Past the Hype of 3D Printers

A closer look at managing an emerging technology in education.

GUEST COLUMN | by David Miklas

CREDIT be3DWhile it is easy to demonstrate 3D printing’s power in manufacturing or healthcare through faster time to market or lower costs, calculating the benefit in education is more difficult. Instructors have brought 3D printers into the classroom and incorporated them into their curriculum, often creating graded projects where a student’s hypothesis is proven with the aid of a 3D object.

When asked how 3D has helped in their instruction, they often cite student motivation and engagement with the project as a positive result. A student who is motivated tends to excel and any tool that can help with motivation is welcomed, right? Or is it just a lot of hype that will pass?

A student who is motivated tends to excel and any tool that can help with motivation is welcomed, right?

Let’s take a short walk through the past to see if history has some pointers from which we can learn.

The first laser printer came about in 1969 and started to make its way into offices and academic institutions in the ’70s. In education, the ability to print documents was transformative, enabling instructors to share information with students easily, usually getting boxes of documents from the head office. In the ’80s and ’90s, students were using the printers for their school assignments and access to printers became as natural as access to books. Today, each school district has a fleet of 2D paper printers, the use of which is managed carefully by IT and finance. Students simply send a document to print, go to the nearest printer, and pick it up. School districts and universities may even have a pay-for-print system so that costs can be recovered by the school.

It isn’t hard to imagine that if 3D printers are adopted in education as paper printers were and still are today, that fleets of 3D printers will be in demand. And with that comes some unique challenges that paper printers did not face.

For example, a paper project prints in a few minutes. If someone accidentally takes a page or an entire print job, it is not too difficult (albeit annoying) to just reprint it. Not the case with 3D printing. Until there are significant changes in 3D technology, even a simple 3D print can take hours. And, if someone ‘takes your print before you can get to it’, reprinting is more than just annoying, it is painful—not to mention costly. On top of this, waiting for the 3D printer to be available can be frustrating.

Let’s look at the pay-for-print system. It is fairly easy to calculate the cost of a paper print job. The school knows the cost per page, and price lists can be created. Students know exactly how much it will cost to print their report in black/white or color. How does the school present and recover costs on 3D projects?

Many schools and universities have tested 3D printers and want to make them available to instructors and students. Like their paper printer cousins, they also want to print an object on any available 3D printer. But today’s 3D printers are not networked and once a print job has started, anyone can stop it and the school has little way to manage its use and its materials.

Today’s 3D printer purchase decision rests highly on the quality and cost even though many of the printers on the market are meant for hobbyist use. (Eventually these two factors will decline in importance as the number of models on the market shrink due to right-sizing of the 3D printing industry through mergers and acquisitions.) There are other important considerations when bringing a 3D printer into the school environment.

Whether K-12 or university, instructors should also consider the safety of these devices and the integrity of the 3D print. Many do-it-yourself and big brand 3D printers have exposed mechanisms which inquisitive students will want to touch, exposing the school to liability for injury. Open-air printers also mean that the fumes from the printing materials are exposed, many of which are toxic; US researchers suggest well ventilated rooms or enclosed printers with a vent. For these reasons, a fully enclosed printer is a better option for education.

Ease of use is an important consideration. Students (and instructors) should not be hampered with learning a complex system that takes away from the classroom subject learning.

If you or your school is investigating 3D printers, you may have tested a few systems and are ready to purchase on a larger scale. In this case, you want to consider how these printers will be available to students and how the costs can be recovered. Does a 4-hour print job cost the same as a 10-hour print job?

Once the hype of 3D printing moves from the classroom to the campus, these are the kinds of issues that school administrators, IT and purchasing should be considering.

All the issues mentioned above are solved on paper printers – it’s called print management and the software is embedded in the world’s most popular brands of printers that print, copy and scan. The same system that manages paper printers in education can be leveraged to manage use, costs and workflows for 3D printers.

David Miklas is the General Manager of 3D printers in Y Soft. Y Soft is a leading provider of enterprise office solutions and 3D printers including YSoft be3D eDee, a 3D printer for Education that includes print management, workflow and an accounting system.

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