The world of 3D printing


The government has extended its 3D printing school pilots with the aim of building a portfolio of best practice. Gerald Haigh reports on what many agree is the next big technological revolution.

A government-funded pilot which put 3D printers into 21 schools last academic year has now been extended to a further 60. Many other pioneer teachers have been working with the technology for some time. And from 2014, 3D printing is in the design and technology curriculum.

At one level, 3D printing is pure magic. Press “print” on your laptop and instead of a sheet of A4, the device on the table next to you produces a flower vase, suitable as a Christmas present for your Auntie Flo.

Educators, though, cannot simply bask in the wonder of the party trick. So, as you watch the vase take shape, imagine a world where products of all shapes, sizes and functions are no longer trucked, shipped and flown around the globe. Instead, designs and ideas are bought, sold, shared, and given away on the internet, to be printed in shops, factories and homes close to where they are needed. 

Think of the implications for the global economy over the next five, 10, 50 years and it is easy to see why Professor Christopher Barnatt of Nottingham University Business School, author of the book 3D Printing, adds the confident subtitle, The next industrial revolution. The principles are well-established. 3D print technology has been used in industry for 30 years, mainly for quickly producing moulds, patterns and prototypes that would otherwise take many hours of skilled work. Now, costs are tumbling, machines are providing ever-greater possibilities. The jumping off point into radical growth is probably here, and schools need to be ready to surf the zeitgeist.? 

How, though, to go about it?

First of all, you are experienced enough to know that you won’t just buy a machine and then work out what to do next (after all, you didn’t do that with your iPads did you? Thought not). Instead, you will do the research, only a small part of which consists of reading this article. 

A good first stop on the way is the Department for Education’s (DfE) 3D Printers in Schools: Uses in the curriculum. Filled with examples and illustrations, this PDF download draws on lessons from the 21 schools which made up the first DfE-funded pilot scheme.  An extended scheme for a further 60 schools was announced in October and is already under way.

The next call, for support as well as information, will probably be the Design and Technology Association (DATA). Having been heavily involved in shaping the new curriculum, DATA is also engaged with the DfE pilot programme. 

Andy Mitchell, curriculum director and assistant chief executive at DATA, said: “We’ve been advising the DfE so that when schools have the equipment they will have appropriate resources to help them.”

Mr Mitchell, like all who encounter this technology, is fired up by it: “What’s exciting is that it makes it possible for children to design and manufacture things they could not do easily or at all with any other means.”

Another organisation with considerable experience of working with schools across the country on all kinds of digital manufacture is Black Country Atelier (BCA), based in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter. Says BCA founder Jing Lu: “We introduce 3D printing to teachers and students so they can see how it will sit within their school and how to take it forward and see clear progression paths.”

She is clear that 3D printing shouldn’t be seen in isolation. This echoes the strong message from the DfE’s report from the pilot schools, which suggests that the design and technology department should be a “hub” for wider distribution of the technology. The extended, 60-school DfE project strongly reinforces the cross-curricular, STEM, approach too.

“It’s part of a bigger debate about how technology is used in school,” says Ms Lu. “We work with maths and other STEM groups and with art classes. Part of our advice is that 3D is a new language across subjects, and so we ask teachers to think how it could impact across whole schools.”

She is encouraged by the level of acceptance within schools: “Teachers and heads know it’s coming. It’s just that they’re not sure how to integrate it into the classroom. We work with schools to refine that and we’re starting some longer term partnerships with schools across science and maths and the arts.”

One school with experience of working with BCA is the RSA Academy in Tipton, Staffordshire. The academy has innovative curriculum, including the RSA Opening Minds programme, and the International Baccalaureate, and their approach to design and technology is appropriately forward-looking.

Christopher Smith, lead practitioner for STEM subjects, said: “We were early adopters of the laser cutter and we have all the modern CAD and CAM resources.”

After a bold early start before Mr Smith arrived, with a very expensive 3D printer that turned out too costly to run, the school now has a simpler, affordable device. But the machine is only the start.

“There’s a massive learning curve,” explained Mr Smith. “Children have trouble getting their heads round visualising things in 3D, and they need the traditional computer skills with the CAD software.”

At the same time, as he explains, “it does open up that fantastic opportunity to design and create and bring to life beautiful ideas”. Now, Mr Smith is developing a longer relationship with BCA, looking to extend 21st century design skills and concepts across the curriculum: “It’s not so much the hardware as the thought process about what you can do and where you can go.”

Another early adopter is Dame Alice Owen’s School in Potters Bar. One of the 21 pilot schools, they embarked on 3D printing four years ago led by head of design and technology Robin Benford.

“It took a lot of learning,” he said. “It was a year or so before we were really successful. Later models have a quicker learning time, and you do get better if you persevere.”

Like Mr Smith, Mr Benford finds students enthusiastic about being able to make well-finished small objects such as medals and key rings – and, in his school, car components.

“We take part in Formula One for Schools, the biggest STEM project in the world,” he explained. “Students make 3D printed wheels and wings for their model F1 cars.” (The real F1 teams, as Mr Benford points out, make extensive use of advanced 3D print technology.)

Mr Benford is well-placed now for the arrival of the new curriculum, and he advises others not to delay. “Schools cannot ignore it. They need to get in at the beginning.”

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. 

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