3D printing on a budget

Fernando Hernandez

Fernando Hernandez is European MD at XYZprinting, the world’s leading desktop 3D printer brand. XYZprinting is pioneering accessible and affordable 3D printers with dedicated STEAM educational bundles and curricula for schools to guide teachers and inspire students’ creativity.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Felix 3D Printer. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Felix 3D Printer.

When it comes to top classroom tech, 3D printing is continuously making headlines. Its place in the classroom is being cemented as the next generation learns to mould and manipulate the technology to feed their creativity, with applications across STEAM subjects and beyond. Historically, 3D printing has been out of reach for many smaller budgets, but rapid developments in the technology means that ‘plug and play’ 3D printers are more accessible and affordable than ever, with desktop models available for as little as a couple of hundred pounds.

From providing teachers with three-dimensional visual aids for use in the classroom, to enhancing hands-on learning and interactive lessons, 3D printing technology offers endless possibilities for Primary and Secondary school pupils today and in the very near future.

With so many great features available, here’s how to choose the best 3D printer for your school and get the most for your money.

What kind of 3D printer should I choose?

There are many different kinds of 3D printing, but two key types are suitable for the classroom.

3D printers which use fused deposition modelling (FDM) heat and extrude thermoplastic filament, building a 3D object from “SLA printers are more expensive to purchase and run.”the bottom up, layer by layer. A nozzle uses melted plastic to ‘draw’ layers onto a print bed, one on top of another. FDM printers are both the most affordable on the market and the easiest to use. They can come in extremely compact, desktop models which make them perfect for the classroom. They are less precise on finer prints, but are more than capable of helping students realise their creativity.

The second type of desktop 3D printer uses stereolithography (SLA), which uses a UV laser to harden a liquid resin layer-by-layer. Lasers pass through a pool of liquid resin to harden a layer of resin. The pool is then lowered by a fraction of a millimetre, and the next layer is cured, until a full 3D object appears to be pulled out of the pool. SLA 3D printers will offer better precision and higher-quality prints, so are great for intricate designs - such as printing model organs for a Biology lesson. These devices will be significantly slower than FDM models, and because of the high quality of prints, SLA printers are also more expensive to purchase and run.

What material should you use for printing?

FDM printers use plastic filaments, of which PLA and ABS are the most popular.

  • ABS plastics are more robust than PLA, but can produce fumes which may be toxic if too concentrated, so are not recommended for beginners.
  • PLA filament is eco-friendly and biodegradable and comes in a variety of colours, so is a child friendly alternative.
  • Resin prints created by SLA printers need to be cured with chemicals to ensure any residue is removed, so are only recommended for more advanced students.

What safety considerations are there?

FDM printer nozzles can reach temperatures of up to 250°C. Some printers also come with heated printing beds of up to 110°C - so keep fingers away to avoid burns. Many printer ranges are designed specifically for children and beginners and come with separate covers or, even better, fully enclosed.

It’s good practice to keep 3D printers in well-ventilated rooms, even if they don’t produce toxic fumes, so do carefully consider where you place them. This doesn’t mean cold or drafty rooms, as these could cause prints to cool down too quickly and warp.

Finally, do not use hairspray to help prints stick to the bed. A small spark could be enough to ignite the gas, so any build-up in the spray would be a significant hazard. Instead, use water-soluble glue sticks or stick-on plastic films.

Overall, it’s a good idea to stick to models specifically designed for beginners or children, which will have many key safety features in-built.

How much upkeep does the printer need?

There are a handful of printer parts which will eventually need replacing. Nozzles on an FDM printer, for example, tend to last six to 12 months if kept in good condition.

To ensure a nozzle’s maximum lifespan, make sure you clean it regularly with a metal brush and unblock any residual plastic.“It’s better to look for proprietary filaments.” The quality of the filament you use in printing will also have an impact on how long your nozzle will last, so it’s often better to look for proprietary filaments than simply buying the cheapest material on the market. Your printer bed or tank will also need a regular clean with a moist, warm towel to remove any leftover glue or resin.

Otherwise, upkeep is pretty simple. It’s worth considering a printer which self-calibrates, to make life easier when you have to remove and replace components, or you might end up spending some time repositioning the nozzle and bed to be able to print effectively.

Anything else to consider?

With new developments in 3D printing arising all the time, there are plenty of extra tools and features you can add to enhance your students’ experience where budget allows.

3D scanners are great for students with less 3D design experience, as it allows them to take scans of existing objects and convert them to editable, printable files. There are many printers which have scanners built in, while for scanning larger objects there are handheld models available.

To help your students personalise their prints even further, 3D pens let students doodle in plastic, either as stand-alone 3D designs or as an addition to 3D prints.

Whilst traditionally printers could only print in one or two colours, new desktop models use proprietary 3DColourJet technology, which sprays white PLA prints with inkjet colour droplets, to form full colour 3D prints.

There are plenty of 3D printer models out there, and many opportunities for schools to make the most of this blossoming technology. 3D printers will bring about the next revolution in technology, so schools who embrace the technology now and pick the right models for their school will ultimately their schools and students ahead of the curve.

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