In my previous post, I talked about the need for schools to find symbiotic partnerships with industry to assist with the expertise gap. Schools need support to offer specialised programs. Our capacity as a school to scale 3D printing is not an option without partnerships. 3D printers are not ‘plug and play’ technology and as a school, we learnt this the hard way. Tasks such as calibrating the Z axis, levelling the build plate and clearing jammed extruders are not tasks teachers should have to deal with. These tasks make the scalability of the 3D printers really difficult. More time is spent on making them work than having them work. Yes, teachers and students should know how to prepare a print and how to perform general maintenance but not when it has a high impact on learning time.
A 3D journey
My vision for 3D printing was for students and staff to view 3D printing as a reliable and viable option to showcase creativity. I wanted to move past the ‘wow’ factor and embed the technology so well that students viewed printing in 3D as they would printing in black and white or colour.
We began our journey four years ago with the purchase of two UpMini 3D printers. The printers were the highlight of our Makerspace, with students thumbing through Thingiverse to find files to print and learning how to use software such as SketchUP and TinkerCad to create their own original designs. The UpMini printers printed with ABS which had a rather unpleasant smell and a risk assessment at school highlighted the need for a fume cupboard. For this reason, we moved away from them. After a year of tinkering with the printers and seeing the power of providing students with access to such a medium, we made two key changes. The first was the purchase of two MakerBot 5th generation printers and the second was embedding it in the curriculum.
Looking back now, it was naive to think that two printers would serve four classes of students but hindsight is a wonderful thing. The curriculum rewrite was a much better success though. Built with design thinking as the engine to help drive student thinking, a stronger focus on design and empathy appealed to all students. Providing a more diverse approach to the design and digital technologies curriculum also allowed us to increase the engagement of girls in the subject. In Year 7, Digital Technologies is a compulsory subject but after that, it becomes an elective. Traditionally, we would have low numbers of girls selecting the subject post Year 7. Offering a curriculum that is built on empathy and the use of technology to solve problems has had greater appeal and as a result, we have had a significant increase in the number of girls choosing the elective in Year 8.
One of the first projects the students were tasked with was the development of a keepsake for attendees at the 2016 TeachTechPlay conference. With 100 small projects being required to be printed, we quickly found out that we were going to need assistance. Via a friend, I was introduced to Chris Ly, aka the 3D Printing Guy. This was the start of an accelerated journey that has allowed us to scale 3D printing significantly. Connecting with a person with extensive industry expertise and passion for 3D printing has allowed my school to go from two MakerBot 3D printers and 2 Up Mini printers to having access to 60 3D printers. We don’t own 60 3D printers and nor would we wish to at about $5000 a pop. That’s not a viable or sustainable model for our school (or any school for that matter). Chris has a farm of 3D printers that he manages. Many of these printers Chris owns but he also manages 3D printers for schools and businesses. This means at any one time, over two classes worth of creative content can be printed. Considering that a print can take multiple hours, this really helps schools maintain learning momentum. We have purchased additional printers to bring our total to 8 but we use the collective capacity of the 60 printers to get work back in the hands of our students as soon as possible. Next year, Chris has plans to expand to 100 printers. Using a service like the 3D printing guy also allows schools which don’t own 3D printers to provide their students access to cutting edge technology. This helps bridge the equity gap and there really does needs to be more services like it.
Due to the capacity of the MakerBots to connect to wifi, most of the maintenance can be completed remotely by Chris. Prints can be loaded remotely. Beds levelled remotely. Through the MakerBot app, students can also watch their creation being printed and be notified if their print fails. This flexibility allows students to follow their work through the whole process but also allows us to have the expertise to make sure that the success rates of our 3D prints are much higher. Printers can be situated anywhere as long as they have access to wifi.
We currently don’t have any 3D printers on site as our focus has been on the honing the whole process. By this I mean, ensuring the process is smooth, the turnaround times for prints are consistently small and the success rate of prints is high. I can happily say that we have consistently hit the mark on this over the past six months. Our printers will soon be moved back on site and situated around the school.
Over the years, we have experimented with a few methods to send prints to the 3D printer. From manually loading a print to sending an email to the Helpdesk, the lack of a 3D printing queue has made it really difficult. Being able to prioritise jobs such as Year 12 folio work over personal prints has been taxing on time. This year, we have used a Jotform Chris and I created to introduce students to the design decisions of 3D printing (resolution, version control and colour). When the form is complete, the class teacher, myself and Chris receive an email with the specific details. Chris and I have a shared Dropbox folder that we use for the prints. The process is not perfect but it works. We are working on a better system. Once the prints have printed, they are posted back to us. The turnaround depends on the volume and the amount of notice we provide Chris. For our Year 7 Curriculum, we had one hundred e-NABLE Phoenix hand prints with about a week’s turnaround.
Chris’ passion for 3D printing is second to none. As well as being the 3D Printing Guy, he is also head of the Melbourne Chapter of the e-NABLE Foundation. He provides constant support and training for staff and has really helped develop our program into what it is currently. I have learnt so much from him and it is this type of industry partnership that can truly allow schools to grow. A symbiotic way to help provide students with great access to industry standard tools and expertise.