Generally I consider tools by student motivation. There are tools that people consider to be a part of makerspaces, 3D Printers comes to mind, and there are tools that emerge as important to individual makerspaces through participant interest. Students and parents expect to see artifacts like 3D printers and scanners. There are many other possible tools for selection as well. With a moderate budget you can certainly cover the costs of a low end 3D printer and a few other tools described in this section.
I retain my prejudice towards Ultimaker Printers but they are expensive. Choosing a 3D printer that is highly visible and effective is certainly one of the important tasks in developing an educational makerspace. There is a dual purpose to a 3D printer – useability and as a branding banner that says “This is a Makerspace”. Rather than focus on the branding and tokenisation of makerspaces by printers, the next section discussing facets that are important in choosing a useful tool for your space.
First, when choosing a printer, you need something that has good usability. Educational environments are predominantly populated by novices, especially at the beginning, and technical or build-it-yourself printers are something to think about in the future. They are great for gaining a second printer but a bit of a loss when you are tackling creating an early makerspace.
A second area to check into is the type of material the printer uses. Filament can be quite expensive and different material types provide affordances and costs in terms of sizing and type of plastic. ABS, during melting, smells terrible and releases gases that may be harmful in an enclosed environment. It prints well but may cost you too much if you don’t have an already well-ventilated space. PLA is cleaner in melting, sometimes a slight smell of butter is detectable. Both have different price points and potential material differences in terms of special formulations. I love playing with copper infused filament and some of the filaments that look like wood. I have found them in PLA and my students really enjoy creating with those materials. These specialty material can cost up to $80 a kilogram. You can also find, more traditional filaments, for as low as $30. Not all spools are created equal however – getting samples and trying prints on your specific printer is a necessary exercise to find what works best for you. Also pay attention to the sizing. 1.5 and 3mm filaments are pretty common. If you printer requires something more esoteric you will have a limited shopping pool. I recommend finding a printer that uses lower end, PLA-based, 1.5 or 3mm filaments.
Your first printer will require technical support at some point. That might be set up or training. It could be for maintenance. This is still a new technology and, though it shares part of a name with that paper and ink magic machine, it has many kinks and bugs to resolve. You will experience broken parts at some point and you will require quick repair and return of your product. Find a great warranty and become familiar with the local makerspace people who can resolve technical glitches. Extended warranties are worth the money.
3D printers are designed and built for hobbyists for the most part. They have more time and interest in tinkering that teachers. Be selfish with your time and consider carefully the time required to keep the printer running. Cultivate experts to help as well. It is worth it.
Software for Designing
If you have a 3D Printer you need design software. Software MUST be able to export to an STL file. Most current programs do this. I like to find software that fits the student ability level and have broken down some software by these standards.
- Google Sketchup – free, useful for architectural drawings, paid additional features.
- 3DTin – Easy, more drawing that designing, fun.
- 123D Creature App – an iOS and Android app – I love this for younger students making strange creatures.
- Morphi – a bit tough to deal with imports and exports and it costs a little bit. This is wonderful for my beginning third and fourth grade students.
- CAD programs like 123D Design, TinkerCAD, Cubify Invent and other tools are great modeling programs.
Complex Mesh Modeling Software
Mesh tools can be easy to start with and lead to hugely complex experiences.
- Easy common software includes Cubify, Sculpt, Meshmixer, and, my favorite for kids to make monsters, Sculptris. These often require explicitly training participants in creating printable 3D models.
- More professional tools include Blender, Rhino, 3DS Max, and Maya. They have a steep learning curve. Try them before investing. Blender is free but hugely complex. Check for lite versions if you have a BYOD program and have kids experiment.
You will also need a slicer program. I love MeshLab, Cura, and a few other tools but your printer will also have a recommendation.
I avoided 3D scanners until I wanted to create something to augment a real world problem. Scanners may be the key to augmentative design and simplifying the design process in general. It is also a great way to get student sculpture in clay and other mediums into a program for digital tweaking. Check out the newest products and kickstarters for some awe-inspiring implementation ideas.
Our school have a wide variety of circuitry based tools. These are hugely exciting for getting interactivity out of making projects. Some of the higher end implementations are actually microcontrollers like Arduino, BeagleBone, and Raspberry Pi. Generally I view the Arduino program as the one with widest adoption. I absolutely love their wearable units for creating fashion wearables. Light up LEDs, make simple circuits, try a Makey Makey to gain insights into interface design, buy some robotics parts, Little Bits for experimentation and prototyping – explore widely and ask friends for recommendations. Be ready to introduce new tools as demand requires and student curiosity grows.
I love this tool. It is fast, easy, and has so much potential. You can cut more than vinyl but a great introductory activity is creating a vinyl sticker for a laptop. It is just fun. Easy. Quick. 3D printing takes hours. A small vinyl image will take seconds. An entire class’s projects can be cut in moments. Then they get to weed…peel the unneeded vinyl away….work on transferring the sticker…all the fun stuff. You can save money on vinyl by having protype cuts on paper too! The downside is the expensive software means we only have the cutting software on one computer and students must import their designs before cutting.
A Final Note
I hope this quick informational tidbit was helpful. We really enjoy seeing students design and build. Tools are just the medium. As student use becomes more complicated your tool set will increase. We are currently in the process of adopting a laser cutter. It is an exciting prospect. Each tool drives some new innovations and teaches us something about our process.
Let us know if you want us to review another tool or comment on the use in our makerspace.