3D printing for kids: A parent’s guide to getting started

iD Tech in action

To adults, 3D printing might seem like a far-out, futuristic technology. And to kids, 3D printing may present itself as an intensive, expensive activity reserved for grown ups. 

But over the past few years, 3D printing has been solidified as one of the most promising innovations the world has ever seen—and one that is accessible to all ages at that. 

Now, that doesn’t mean every kid will have a 3D printer in the house by 2020! 

But it does mean that we’ve seen a glimpse of what’s possible 3D printing…and those who want to get more involved have the opportunity to be on the precipice of something special. 

To help both you the parent and your young ones get on board, we put together this guide that will hopefully educate and entertain!

What is 3D printing?

3D printing describes the process of creating a digital model and then sending that file to be manufactured as a physical, three-dimensional object. 

For kids, 3D printing can be thought to work much like the inkjet printer they have at home or in school, except they’re “printing” using materials through an additive process, rather than printing ink on paper. 

Said differently, 3D printing can be likened more to manufacturing and building than actual “printing” given the physical nature of the output. 

In terms of their capabilities, 3D printers are able to create amazing projects. Here are a few different ways they are being used:

  • To prototype new designs
  • To replace parts for machines or automobiles
  • To build toys and trinkets
  • To create prosthetic limbs and organs
  • To manufacture housing

As shown through the short list above, the world of 3D modeling and printing is vast—and really, if you can dream it, you can build it!

What are some considerations parents and kids should take with 3D Printing?

Safety

First and foremost, safety when using 3D printers should always be top of mind. As a general rule, kids should never be left alone with their printers, and thus should only operate them under adult supervision. 

At the end of the day, the 3D printer is a tool, just like a hammer or sewing machine, and can cause harm even unintentionally. Between the moving parts and extreme temperature levels, there are dangers if proper precautions are not taken. 

This is not by any means an exhaustive list of things to be aware of when it comes to safety, but merely a reminder message of warning for you and your children. You can read more about 3D printer safety here

Compact design

Next, finding room for a 3D printer in your home can be tough, especially when most models are so large and heavy. 

For a compact option, the Mini V2Monoprice Select Mini 3D Printer V2 - which is the printer we use in our 3D printing classes at camp - is comparably small and lightweight, making it easier for kids to make space in the home. 

For those who want to try before buying, many local tech museums and even libraries allow kids to get up close and personal with 3D printing tech. 

Heated bed

With 3D printing, one of the issues that can come about is potential for prints to cool and warp or shrink. While some things are unavoidable, imagine the frustration stemming from hours of work modeling and planning, only to have the print fail in the end. 

To mitigate the risk, a heated bed can be used, making it less likely for prints to come up off the bed during printing (as long as the model that is printing has a flat base). 

Flexible software

Before an object can be printed, it must first be designed in 3D modeling software like Autodesk Maya. After the modeling step, the object then needs to be “sliced,” which basically transforms the 3D creation into a format the 3D printer can interpret and print. Slicing is basically the transformational process that takes place between modeling software and printing hardware

Printers, including the aforementioned Monoprice Select Mini V2, can work with multiple types of slicing software. At camp we use Ultimaker Cura to slice models and prepare them for printing. 

Cura also provides useful information about prints, such as the amount of filament that will be used, and how fast the print will run, which isn’t a standard option with some software options. 

How does 3D printing work?

Just like traditional printing, 3D printing requires you to send a digital file to be transformed into a requested output. 

The only difference is that 3D-printed objects are much more than colors on a page: they are plastic models, food, homes, ceramics, cells, glass—just about anything you can imagine.

3D design files come in a variety of file formats including STL, DAE, OBJ, and others, and are created using different types of 3D modeling software, such as Autodesk Maya and Mudbox. 

While there are a few ways 3D printers actually create objects (depending on the material you’re using), most items are created through an additive process, which is a fancy way to say that the printer will print your object as layers stacked upon one another. (View other 3D printing terms). 

3D printers come in all shapes and sizes, from small 3D printing pens to massive, industrial-size printers.

Check out this timelapse video to see a 3D printed T-Rex take shape!

But why 3D printing when we already have the creative means? 

It’s a great question. Oftentimes something new and shiny comes along, and people rush to it or are told they should be rushing to it, but nobody ever stops to think about the “why?”

So aside from being cool and new, what value is there in 3D printing? We have printing in the traditional sense, and we also have people and processes already in place to build many of the things we’ve mentioned above. 

Hint: We did refer to it being “world-changing” above. That’s no exaggeration.

It’s not just that 3D printing is advancing to the point of allowing us to create anything imaginable. But, it’s the way in which the process is carried out that sets it apart from existing technologies. Think efficiencies, cost, scalability, risk mitigation, sustainability, and more. 3D printing offers a number of advantages over traditional manufacturing

And when it comes to 3D printing for kids, specifically, think about the doors to innovation and creativity that are now open. I mean, just like crayons, colored markers, and paint elevated the abilities of an aspiring artist, or the computer screen allowed kids to go from pen or pencil drawings to full-blown graphical creations, 3D printing is the next level up for anyone with a big imagination. 

Below are a few ways 3D printing can actually change the world. (How’s that for “why?”)

How can 3D printing change the world?

While some of these ideas may seem far-fetched, they each stem from activities that are happening right now! Sure, there are different logistical hurdles and other challenges that need to be figured out, but that’s how something small becomes “the next big thing.” 

Here is some inspiration for any kid who wants to be on the forefront of something huge!

1. Aid world hunger: 

3D-printed food may seem weird, and even unappetizing, but for now, think more about how it might help us solve world hunger. For instance, using vegetable proteins, the first piece of meat was recently printed

2. Custom, affordable prosthetics: 

Prosthetics are life-changing. But they can also be costly and time-consuming to create—and insurance companies often think it’s not worth the cost, sadly. Thankfully, with new 3D printing technology, there are companies specializing in the creation of inexpensive prosthetics.

3. Improved manufacturing: 

Right now, various machines are created for a specific purpose. One machine might be needed to create a two-inch part, while an entirely different machine would be necessary for creating a three-inch part. With 3D printing, a single machine could be used to create endless parts and pieces—you would only need to tweak the software to go from creating a two-inch part to a three-inch part.

4. Safer space travel

The Apollo 11 mission to the moon almost failed when a circuit breaker switch was bumped and broken off. Luckily, Buzz Aldrin was able to jerry-rig the breaker using a felt-tipped pen, ensuring that Armstrong and the rest of the crew weren’t stuck in space for eternity. But what if he hadn’t been able to use that pen as a switch? What if one broken part was the deciding factor between the world’s greatest space mission and utter failure?

With 3D printers on board spaceships, astronauts could design a broken part (or upload a file from Earth) and then print a custom solution in just a few hours. It’s no wonder NASA has funded a number of 3D printing projects.

5. Less waste

Waste is inevitable. (Just think about the last time you filled up your plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet!) But with 3D printing, waste could be greatly reduced. How? Imagine if companies could print exactly what they needed without slowing production time, and if custom packaging could be created inexpensively, reducing the volume of leftover trash?

With 3D printing, businesses won’t need to overproduce. So they’ll waste less resources and save more money.

6. More power to the people

3D printing technology is a blessing for big thinkers who have an awesome idea but lack the funding to go to production. Say you come up with a new design for a bridge, but you’re not sure whether the physics will work out. Now you can print your 3D bridge design in hours, test it, and make changes to the next iteration without wasting time or materials.

In the same way that cloud software opened the door for regular people to innovate and create, 3D printing will do the same for actual materials. The result? We’ll solve big problems faster than ever before.

7. More affordable healthcare

Staying healthy is expensive, and when things go wrong, healthcare becomes even more expensive. But, luckily, some of the greatest potential of 3D printing will be in the health sector.

Say that your son breaks his arm. You could get a traditional cast, which is bulky, doesn’t smell great over time, and makes showering, well, complicated. Or, you could spend less money to get a custom 3D-printed cast that’s lightweight, easy to clean, and way cooler looking. Oh, and since it’s based directly on the scan of your son’s arm, it’s comfortable and built to heal and support his specific injury.

From simple, preventative devices that make work easier to 3D bioprinted skin grafts (yes, you’re reading that correctly—human skin!), health advances are one of the coolest ways 3D printing will improve our world.

What does the 3D printing process look like?

As we’ve shown, there is endless opportunity with 3D printing. But, that might also make it extremely difficult for kids to get started. 

Where do they even begin? What do they create?

Using the simple steps of engineering design, let’s take a look at what the process might look like. (As an example, we’ll use an iD Tech snowflake we created a few years ago as a giveaway.)

1. Identify a problem

This first step of the engineering design process is the crux of the entire project, as it helps your child better understand the problem they’d like to solve through 3D printing. 

In our case with the snowflake, the problem was this: how could we design a snowflake that looked great, prominently featured the iD Tech logo, and could be produced relatively quickly and inexpensively for a large group of people?

Knowing the problem helps kids understand what challenges they’ll have to account for in the design process. 

For instance, whatever we designed had to have a high success rate once it was sent to the 3D printer. Meaning, we didn’t want someone to have to closely monitor the items being printed to check for failures.

2. Research

Everyone's a genius on how a snowflake looks, right up until you need to make one from scratch! The simplicity that makes it beautiful is not so simple at the end of the day—every snowflake is different after all!

Anyway, for as important as it is to identify the problem to be solved, the research phase is equally important, and while it may only take a few minutes, it could save young 3D printers a lot of time later. 

For instance, without properly researching before jumping in to design a 3D model, kids may find that their creation doesn’t turn out looking anything like their intended “snowflake.”

In our case, the next step then was to find a good example of a snowflake that we could use as inspiration to create our 3D model. Through a few Google searches, we were able to bookmark a few images to be used for future reference. 

3. Imagine and plan

At this stage, we knew a few things for certain: The snowflake we wanted to make was going to have a couple key features, like the iD Tech logo and cut-outs throughout in order to show off its 3-dimensionality. We also wanted people to be able to hang it up as an ornament.

Thus, the end result would need to have a solid center to feature the logo on both sides, and 8 sections stemming out of the center, which would alternate in size (big, small, big, small) to give it a more complex feel. 

The bigger parts would be hollowed out to show the difference and create a nice fractals look. (Fractals are never-ending patterns that continue on in an endless loop.) 

So as you can see, at this stage in the engineering design process, designers should finalize the look of their creation. It’s usually helpful for kids to draw their design before they start creating the object with the 3D modeling software.

4. Create In 3D

Once your child has a  solid plan, it’s time to put it to work and actually create their design with 3D software.  

Kids have a few different options at this point, but our software of choice for our snowflake was Autodesk Maya, since we were already working on curriculum for one of our 3D modeling courses. There are also many free 3D modeling products that you can download (such as Autodesk Tinkercad). Check out the list of free resources at the bottom of this post to find more free tools.

When it was time to start creating, we began by forming the center with a cylinder, and then adjusting that cylinder to form the number of sides needed. 

Next, we created one of the longer ends of the snowflake, and then cut out some holes in it using Boolean logic. We duplicated and rotated this end section of the snowflake to the other sides, so that in the end, the long, hollow tip was replicated around the entire snowflake.

Next, we needed to create the small ends so that the snowflake would have the alternating edges needed to give it a more complex feel. 

Finally, we added the iD Tech logo to the center on both sides!

5. Testing the print

How boring would the world be if everyone succeeded at everything on the first try? 

Thus, it’s at this testing stage where a good reminder of “try, try again” will go a long way!

For us, as simple as the 3D snowflake design appeared to be, it actually took a few tries to get it to print successfully. The thinness in the walls around the outer edges were susceptible to breaking from not being able to form a good, solid first layer. 

So while we designed a snowflake that looked really nice, it didn’t achieve the goal of being easy to print—and that’s why we test.

After realizing that the flimsiness could be an issue, we knew that we were going to have to adjust the design to better suit the original goals, and that’s OK!

6. Improve

For the last step, young 3D printers will reflect on everything learned from the previous steps and will take care of any required action items in order to “improve” and reach successful completion.

In our case, that meant first going back to Autodesk Maya to improve the thickness of the weaker areas. 

But the improvements didn’t end there! With any single design change, no matter how small, you can expect a cascading effect, and the resulting need to reimagine the rest of the project to ensure everything still works together as originally intended.

In the end, we were left with a simpler design, but one that allowed for more durability when shipping, while also being easier to print since we didn’t have to sit and consistently monitor the printing process.

The last key piece for kids to remember is this—the engineering design process is also a circular process, meaning it is never really done, and can lead to designers having to revisit previous steps before taking a step forward. 

Free 3D printing & 3D modeling resources for your child’s next steps

As you can see, 3D printing can be cool, fun, and even world-changing, but can also be very involved and intensive. 

Don’t let that intimidate your kids and teens! 

Even without any 3D modeling experience, there are a number of free resources and software that can be found online. 

We’ve already mentioned a few, but here is a list of recommended resources for kids to check out as they start exploring.

(And, for personalized instruction on these topics, be sure to check out our 3D modeling and 3D printing courses, which are held at prestigious universities across the country.)

  • 3D Printing & Design Tutorial from Shapeways: Get inspired and then start creating!
  • 3D Modeling Software from Autodesk: Create your own model or modify one of the 10,000+ free 3D models provided by Autodesk.
  • FreeCAD: A great 3D modeler to help you design real-life objects.
  • Free workshops: check out your local Tech Museum or Maker Faire to find free or inexpensive classes on getting started with 3D modeling and printing.

Remember, all this incredible, innovative technology is nothing without sharp, creative minds to bring it to life!

A photo of Ryan

Ryan manages blog content at iD Tech, starting with the company in 2008. He earned his MBA from Santa Clara University after obtaining his Bachelor’s degree from Arizona State. Connect on LinkedIn!

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