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Education Sector Seen as the Next Big Opportunity for 3D Printing

As the technology has matured, 3D printers are now well-established in many industrial companies and highly regarded for their prototyping facility. The next move could well see them become commonplace in more educational institutions.

Photo: 3D printing: Adding a new dimension to US education.
3D printing: Adding a new dimension to US education.
Photo: 3D printing: Adding a new dimension to US education.
3D printing: Adding a new dimension to US education.

With 3D print increasingly established as an industrial prototyping tool, universities and high schools are now seen as the next target market for the sector. Indeed, many of the printing professionals gathered in New York for the recent Inside 3D Printing event seemed only too keen to prove their credentials in the world of academia.

At the hobbyist, SME and education end of the price range, though, competition is fierce, with many 3D printer makers vying for business at the sub-US$1,000 or even sub-$500 price points. While reliability is improving, this is largely due to a combination of increasingly accurate machines and more reliable 3D printing 'filament' raw materials. For many at the show, however, this particular technique was seen as too slow to compete with existing mass production processes.

New materials is another area to have seen a number of positive developments that have opened up fresh possibilities in the 3D print sector. This is particularly the case with flexible, skin-safe plastics, with many of them offering the potential to create custom-made wearables. There still remains a number of technological challenges, however, with printing in metals or substances suitable for surgical implantation not yet a reality.

It was the rise in 3D printer use in educational circles, though, that proved the primary focus this year, with many universities and high schools now adding the theory and practice to their core curriculums. Acknowledging this switch in emphasis, Jack Warren, Chief Operating Officer of Toner Plastics, a Massachusetts-based 3D printing filament supplier, said: "The industrial consumer base is fairly well established. I think that universities are now the big opportunity.

"Many of the people at the show are telling me that they attend a college that has 10 or 15 printers – one had 40 printers. There is a huge opportunity to put these into every high school and university."

Claudio Donndelinger, a Copywriter for Aleph Objects Incorporated, a Colorado-based 3D printer manufacturer, had also noted the increased uptake of the technology in academic circles, as well as in other public sector environments. He said: "More and more industries are using it. Fortune 500 companies are using it and NASA is using it. A significant number of schools and libraries have also adopted the technology.

"Libraries are perhaps the most unexpected converts. Now, just like you can borrow a book, you can make use of a library printer to print."

This uptake of 3D printing in schools is, apparently, not just confined to the US. Jerry Grauman, Customer Service Manager for California's Robo3D, a 3D printer manufacturer, said: "I've heard a lot about the Chinese government investing in 3D printers for the country's school system.

"I also see schools as the next big market in the US, largely because they are really starting to get in touch with this technology and its uses."

Overall, a focus on education – whether academic or in the form of 'outreach' from the 3D printing sector to the business community and beyond – was evident throughout the event. Indeed, there was even a number of businesses operating out of educational institutions exhibiting in their own right this year.

One such business was New Paltz, a 3D printing venture established by New York State University. Explaining its particular offer, Kat Wilson, the company's Assistant Director, said: "We act as a service bureau. If people have pre-made files, we have a variety of industrial printers that can render them. We can work on that basis, although we also offer a more complete design service."

Photo: Cubibot: A robust entry-level 3D printer.
Cubibot: A robust entry-level 3D printer.
Photo: Cubibot: A robust entry-level 3D printer.
Cubibot: A robust entry-level 3D printer.
Photo: Recycled materials: Printed bike parts.
Recycled materials: Printed bike parts.
Photo: Recycled materials: Printed bike parts.
Recycled materials: Printed bike parts.

Despite recent advances, Wilson also believes there remains something of a knowledge gap among those looking to get to grips with 3D printing for the first time. She said: "Many tend to think it's magic and that it just happens overnight. The reality is a little bit more complex than you might think."

While some commercial and industrial 3D printer novices may know just what they want but not really know how to achieve it, the reverse seems to be true for the growing hobbyist customer base. Many private individual early adopters seem to buy a 3D printer and be fully aware of its capabilities, but not really know what to use it for.

With this particular problem in mind, Robo3D offers print-it-yourself kits along with its 3D printers. Explaining the thinking, Grauman said: "One of our first kits allowed you to build your own drone. It came with the batteries, motor, the controller, the electronics board – everything you needed to build your own drone, except for the body. This you have to print for yourself.

"It is really an introductory project for someone with a brand new 3D printer. It allows them to take a first step and, hopefully, that's going to open their minds as to the wider possibilities of 3D printing."

Several exhibitors at the event had on offer entry-level 3D systems aimed at the growing hobbyist market, as well as schools and the smaller commercial enterprises. One such company was California's Cubibot, a start-up manufacturer debuting its entry-level, small-scale, 3D printer at the show.

Explaining his printer's particular advantages, Sina Noorazar, the company's Founder, said: "As our system has a heated bed, it's capable of printing a wider number of materials. It can do ABS [Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene] and it can do a number of different types of plastic, nylon, PLA [polylactic acid].

"Some 90% of 3D printers don't have heated beds, yet can, supposedly, still print ABS. This is not true. If you don't have a heated bed, you can only print PLA."

Moving away from academic applications, Maryland's M3D claims to be the world's leading manufacturer of consumer 3D printers. Summarising the company's approach, Michael Armani, the Co-founder of the business, said: "A lot of guys have tried to go under $500 and they've flopped. The reason is they didn't design for reliability and they didn't plan for manufacturing end-to-end.

"We actually bring in all the parts and assemble in the US. Even though it's made in the US, it's still affordable."

Armani believes that reliability is the key asset of the M3D range, saying: "Customers come up to us at the booth and say: 'I bought one of your printers eight months ago. It's a workhorse, it's running 25 hours a day.' In fact, they're designed to endure several years of continuous usage."

One problem that still faces the 3D printer industry is the issue of accuracy. Poor print performance can result in parts that are not fit for purpose, with hours – or even days – worth of printer time wasted. This is a particular concern with the more expensive 3D printers used for industrial design and prototyping.

One company aiming to tackle this issue head on is German RepRap USA, a Florida-based re-seller and refurbisher of German-built industrial 3D printers. Maintaining that German build-quality is valued in the 3D printing sector, Walter Puls, the company's Regional Director, said: "If you take a look at our typical machine, they use a high percentage of aluminium components. That is something other manufacturers fail to match.

"You will still see a lot of plastic or 3D printed parts in many other machines. These just don't give you the dimensional accuracy that a professional engineer requires."

Puls also sees speed to market as a key advantage of 3D printing for those engineering companies engaged in prototyping and product development. He said: "It could take months to go to the next version of their product using conventional technology, compared to days when using a 3D printer."

Photo: The monster awakes: 3D printing starts to fulfil its potential.
The monster awakes: 3D printing starts to fulfil its potential.
Photo: The monster awakes: 3D printing starts to fulfil its potential.
The monster awakes: 3D printing starts to fulfil its potential.

Billed as 'the largest professional 3D printing event worldwide' the Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo took place at New York City's Jacob K Javits Convention Center from 10-12 April. The event featured some 70 exhibitors and 50 speakers.

James O'Donnell, Special Correspondent, New York

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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