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3D printers at CES: a favorable trend for education

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The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014 in Las Vegas, NV was the customary annual mega-show of everything electronic. The range of products were just too numerous to mention, but one of the most striking sights was the area of the show dedicated to 3D printers. While 3D printers have been receiving much attention over the past year, the industry is now rapidly expanding to include many new players. This is good because as competition increases, the prices continue to fall. For the education market, the interest in 3D printing has been greatly tempered by the high costs. That may be a thing of the past if this year’s show indicates a lasting trend.

There are now many 3D printers that are below $1000. However, there is one new entrant to the US market that trumps all prices levels. XYZ introduced its newest 3D printer, with a starting price of $499. The model is called the Da Vinci 1.0. Although a basic model, it surely can make 3D printing a reality for many. One of the best features is that it is plug and play, which means it works right out of the box. No complicated set up or assembly. The printer requires little more than a USB connection to a computer, and a power cord.

The printer will render figures up to 7.8 inches. While seemingly small, the list of possibilities is practically endless, and depends only on one’s imagination and creativity. For use in educational environments, the integration of 3D printing can surely bring new dimensions to math, science, and art. Project based 3D can integrate concepts from many different subject areas, which is something that greatly interests educators.

3D printing produces objects using an additive process. From CAD (Computer Aided Design) software programs designed specifically for 3D objects, the instructions are sent from a computer to a 3D printer. The printer produces the object one layer at a time using a thermo-plastic material. The material is attached to the printer in a reel or a cartridge, and looks much like fishing line or tennis string. The printer melts the plastic material one layer at a time until the object is fully created.

One aspect of 3D printing that has to be considered is the time to print the object. Upon speaking with many 3D vendor representatives at CES, the print speeds are about the same for all devices, regardless of brand. The reason does not lie in the machine design per se, but rather in the limitations of the process that uses plastic material. Because the process is additive, each layer needs to dry before another layer can be applied. Applying the layers too fast would result in one gooey mess! Therefore, we cannot look to new machines anytime soon that will print objects quickly to satisfy an inner need for instant gratification. The size of the object dictates the creation time. Smaller objects would obviously take less time than larger ones. Depending on the size of the object, it can take from a couple of hours to as many as 6-7 hours. It is difficult to predict how long an object will take to print without some level of experience. But generally, one should expect each object to require a minimum of about 2-3 hours, or more.

Price has been one of the biggest factors limiting adoption, and this appears to be diminishing rapidly. However, the time to print will not change in the near future. That is something schools will have to carefully consider as 3D printers are integrated into curriculum.

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