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!
Best 3D printer for kids
3D printers come at various price points and produce prints ranging from low to high quality. Kids will be so excited to create amazing prints, but the overall look, experience, and level of precision can vary significantly among the printers on the market. In other words, it might be tempting to score an inexpensive printer, but this truly is a case in which you get what you pay for.
3D printers are an amazing way to spark kids' interest in STEM, and (in our book, at least) well worth the investment! Which option is right for your child will depend on a few factors like their experience level, goals for the printer, and age.
At camp, we use the Monoprice Select Mini V2 and Cadet models, which offer a number of great features, including:
Pre-installed extruder: The Monoprice doesn't require any assembly of the extruder or build plate. Just add filament, and kids are ready to go. The Monoprice Cadet also includes automatic levelling, a feature perfect for first-time printers.
Two-ways to print: The Monoprice Select Mini V2 allows printing from an SD card, or by being tethered to a computer via USB. The Monoprice Cadet is fully wireless!
Compact design: The Mini V2 is comparably small and lightweight, making it easier for you to make space for in your home!
3D printing safety
Before going on, 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.
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.
While there is a lot that goes into the 3D printing process, here is a very simplified version in order to help visualize what is required from idea to tangible reality:
Come up with an idea: What is going to be modeled and printed?
Create a concept: Find reference or create concept art of the idea.
Model: Model the idea in Maya, the 3D art program.
Export: Export the model to Cura, the 3D print program.
Print: Send the idea/model to the printer.
Finalize: Sand and paint the new creation!
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?
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. Assist in world hunger:
3D-printed food that's edible? Yes! While seemingly strange on the surface, 3D-printed food can greatly assist in ending world hunger. For instance, using vegetable proteins, the first piece of meat was recently printed.
2. Create customized prosthetics:
Think about the unfortunate situation where someone is in need of prosthetics but isn't able to afford them. Thus, it's not a stretch by any means to conclude that being able to purchase and use prosthetics is a life-changing event. You might be wondering, what about insurance? Doesn't insurance help? Sadly, no, for many. As a result, it's crucial companies find way to make prosthetics more affordable, and 3D printing is at the forefront of such change.
3. Improve manufacturing:
With specialization comes the need for additional resources. Meaning, no longer can one machine create one finalized product, and instead, you need this specific machine for this small piece, and another specific machine for this other small piece, and on and on until all of the pieces are created and constructed together.
But what if you could program one single machine to create for endless needs? All pieces and parts could be created by the same machine, reducing the need for many different machines, specialized maintenance, etc., and making for an all-around more efficient process.
3D printing can make this a reality, only requiring a software tweak to tell the machine to create this small piece or that small piece.
4. Increase safety of space travel
Imagine all that has to go right for a space shuttle to do what it has set out to do. So, it's no surprise that the entire Apollo 11 mission was nearly brought down by a broken circuit breaker. Thanks to Buzz Aldrin's quick thinking, who was able to rig the breaker using a felt-tipped pen, Armstrong and crew were able to overcome.
But imagine if there wasn't the need to "MacGyver" a fix? With a 3D printer on board, astronauts could actually design a piece and then print it out for use (or, perhaps a file could be uploaded from someone on Earth). Maybe that's why NASA has funded a number of 3D printing projects?
5. Less waste
Waste happens. From the food we eat every night, to the boxes of things and trinkets shoved away within our homes. On the manufacturing side, many items are created in bulk lots in order for companies to get ahead of demand, leading to many items sitting "wasted" and unsold or without use if sales fall short of projections.
With 3D printing, companies could print in exact amounts, and more or less on demand. And how about packaging? Now instead of keychain arriving in something the size of a shoe box packed in multiple pieces of protective plastic, custom packaging can be created, leading to far less trash at the end.
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.
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!
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.
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.
3D printing camps (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!