Some eLearning Applications of 3D Printing

From desktop units to professional online services, 3D printing technology is making the virtual solid – and creating a new bridge between reality and the digital world.

Just as in the fairly recent past hard copy from fax machines, dot matrix, inkjet and laser printers allowed information to be easily distributed to students and corporate trainees, access to solid models of concepts and designs is contributing to new forms of production and disseminating information. In this article, we’ll look at some of the ways in which education is benefiting from its use of 3D printing.

Learning By Making

Cut-and-paste handicraft and workshop modelling have long been part of formal and informal education. 3D printing continues this tradition, and expands the range of possibilities for learners. If it can be conceptualised and represented as a digital model, then it can be fabricated. And by enabling abstract concepts and subject matter previously accessible only through books and films to be made solid, 3D printing brings these ideas and objects closer to the learner.

Creative Mathematics

3D printing allows instructors and learners to create solid versions of anything that can be described mathematically. So students can literally grasp concepts like Boolean functions, fractal geometry, algebraic expressions, and trigonometry. And models may be tweaked and transformed in response to new variables and values.

Physical Geography

Beyond the place names and statistics, 3D printing brings a fresh approach to learning geography, as population density charts, demographic data, and topographic maps are translated into solid representations that students can touch and inspect up close. The technology can lend physical form to any information that can be presented in a spreadsheet or chart.

Making History More Immediate

By enabling the production of physical models of objects depicted in photographs, etchings, and engravings, 3D printing gives learners hands-on access to the artefacts and relics of ages past – without the need to gain clearance from museums or Departments of Antiquities. This lends an immediacy and sense of involvement to the study of ancient civilizations, archaeological finds, and fossilised remains.

Tangible Sciences

In the fields of biology and chemistry, 3D printed models allow learners to produce solid representations of molecules, viruses, tissues and organs. This not only facilitates the understanding of complex internal systems and microscopic bodies, but also has practical applications in areas like surgical training.

Practical Design

The integration of 3D printing technology with dedicated CAD (Computer-Aided Design) software enables users in the architectural field to quickly model their spatial ideas and sketches. Similar techniques may be adopted in the realms of structural and mechanical engineering.

Ironically, the evolution of 3D modelling and visualisation technologies has contributed to a decline in physical modelling, fabrication, and prototypes in production design. The sophistication and rendering of high-end 3D design tools are often sufficient to absorb trainee designers in the virtual world of wireframe and rendered mock-ups.

But with the decrease in emphasis on workshop fabrication, 3D printing is empowering physical modelling to make something of a comeback in design training. The solid output of 3D printers enables design students to create physical representations of the models generated by their CAD software – a “Design to Prototype” process that skips the sawing, riveting. or sewing phase in between.

On-Demand Manufacturing

Users of 3D printers may already be aware of some of the entry-level applications of the technology, which allow for the design and production of ornaments, fastenings, and containers – and the reproduction of hard-to-find components from legacy appliances and household objects.

This functionality has a logical extension to the wider professional world. In the near future, it may become standard practice for 3D printers to be employed in manufacturing tools and fittings for specialist applications on demand. Examples might include the fabrication of surgical implements for specific procedures, or customised components for industrial processes.

Helping The Visually Impaired

3D printing is also being employed to develop creative new ways for blind and partially-sighted individuals to connect with the world around them.

In partnership with two high schools in Greece, 3D printing platform MyMiniFactory has made several items available for download, including 3D-printed puzzles and other objects with inscriptions on them in Braille. Designer and illustrator Eva Sbaraini has made 3D models of several characters from the French literary classic “Le Petit Prince” (“The Little Prince”) available for blind and partially-sighted children.

Larger works of art have also been printed in 3D, to make these resources accessible to the visually impaired. Notable projects include the ongoing work of photographer John Olson’s 3D PhotoWorks company, and the recent transformation of Gustav Klimt’s classic painting “The Kiss” into a 3-dimensional model for the Belvedere museum in Vienna.

3D printing is even being used to physically recreate memories from old photographs owned by visually impaired people who may have lost their sight at a later stage in life, or retain a clear inner vision of the people and events depicted in their collection of pictures.

Changing Instructor-Student Relationships

Beyond the modelling aspects of the technology, 3D printing is also creating a shift in the roles traditionally held by instructors and students. It’s an emerging field – and one in which neither students nor teachers tend to be fully conversant. So training with 3D printing is more of a group-based and collaborative process, with the input and expertise required to make the most of the technology coming from whoever is most familiar with its ins and outs.