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.

Models and prototypes make excellent visual aids for communicating and testing ideas. For instance, an aerospace engineer might use 3D printing to output a scale model for flight worthiness testing in a wind tunnel. A cell phone designer might build a prototype of a new phone model and ask potential users whether it feels right. A surgeon could construct a model of a child’s spine to plan an upcoming surgery, and then use the model to explain the process to the child’s parents. In all three cases, access to a physical model has great advantages over a picture. With 3D printing techniques, these models can be constructed quickly and at relatively little expense. The technology has revolutionized industrial engineering by reducing the time and cost of product development and is now used in the arts, education, and many other fields where rapid visualization is advantageous

3D printing is considered by some to be the smaller, cheaper cousin of rapid prototyping — not the same thing.

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

  • This technology is already in use in high schools. Students who are part of design and engineering programs use them to create prototypes of their designs. See links below. - jeanne.century jeanne.century Feb 19, 2011
  • A challenge for students doing Maths & Science is the ability to visual 3D objects when drawn on a 2D piece of paper. This technology could potentially bridge this gap somewhat - horncheah horncheah Feb 23, 2011
  • In physical space 3-D printing could be used in classrooms for a variety of hands-on learning. For example, rather than looking at a poster of human anatomy or even online models or at best building bodies out of folded paper and wig heads- students can manipulate and design and experiment with design of human anatomy as a means of knowledge building. Physical models of anything will help learners who are more spatial and tactile in their learning styles. This one is a no brainer-- if we have the 3-D printing capability we need it in every classroom as standard operating procedure. - sheryl.nusbaum-beach sheryl.nusbaum-beach Feb 28, 2011

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

  • Comments on the cost trend of 3D printing would be useful, as this could help in resource planning beyond the current realities - horncheah horncheah Feb 23, 2011
  • Major new global attention to the importance of this development, see 2011 Economist cover story: "How a new printing technology will change the world" [- roy.pea roy.pea Feb 27, 2011]
  • Should highlight how popular 3D printing is as a hobbyist technology in the Maker Faire Movement across the US right now [- roy.pea roy.pea Feb 27, 2011]
  • Exploration of 3-D printing as part of the collaborative spaces environment. For example, what if kids were in an invention contest. Students from around the world are meeting in the collaborative spaces and thinking about inventions. Like invent America. Because the 3-D printers are expensive the Invention org gives access to 15 printers in physical learning places around the world. As kids play with ideas (described in collaboration spaces section) they send a job to the printer and a protoype is created and (shipped to participant not living near location with printer) or accessed immediately by learner with access to this learning place that has tools like this printer. The invention team plays with the prototype and comes back together in collaboration space and revises work. I remember my son inventing a "power wheels helicopter" He wanted to have a toy that would hover 1 foot above the ground and fly around the backyard rather than driving a Power Wheels car or truck around. You know you have seen the Barbie car things people buy their kids. If he was co-creating this with another 7yr old in France or Brazil they could experiment with the prototype and figure out why it would be a good idea of not. - sheryl.nusbaum-beach sheryl.nusbaum-beach Feb 28, 2011

(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on teaching, learning, or creative expression?

  • The technology is definitely playing a role in the schools that I'm aware of that are STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) schools - not elite specialty schools as much as inclusive STEM schools. 3D printing is used in the context of the Fablabs at the schools where students experience the process of design and prototyping. - jeanne.century jeanne.century Feb 19, 2011
  • I imagine this technology to make its presence felt in private schools in developing regions including in Africa, especially countries like South Africa

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

Please share information about related projects in our Horizon K-12 Project form.