In 2013, Michael Gove, then education secretary, announced a £500,000 programme to introduce “futuristic” 3D printers into state school classrooms. The hope was that it would boost the teaching of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, and the new programme came on the back a successful Department for Education funded trial the previous year that enabled 21 secondary schools to use 3D printers in STEM and design and technology classes.
Announcing the news, Gove said 3D printers “were revolutionising manufacturing and it is vital that we start teaching the theory and practice in our schools. Teaching schools will be able to develop and spread effective methods to do this. Combined with our introduction of a computer science curriculum and teacher training, this will help our schools give pupils valuable skills.”
Many educators welcomed the news. They felt it marked a tipping point for a technology that has been widely used by aerospace and car manufacturing companies since the 1980s.
However, four years on since the introduction of Gove’s 3D printing programme, few schools have fully embraced the technology. While many have a small 3D printer, they tend to use it only very occasionally, meaning that, in the main, 3D printers have not revolutionised D&T as was hoped.
So why has the push for 3D printers not lived up to the hype, considering how transformative the technology could potentially be? The first and, arguably, main reason has been cost. 3D printers essentially fall into three price brackets: entry-level, that is machines that have been embraced by the burgeoning “maker movement” and cost as little as a few hundred pounds; mid-range machines, which retail for between a few thousand pounds and five-figure sums; and high-end machines used by large manufacturing groups for additive manufacturing that sell for tens of thousands of pounds.
However, over the past few years, the cost of entry-level machines, in particular, has reduced significantly, according to Simon Biggs, education outreach officer at 3D printer manufacturer Renishaw.
“Two to four years ago, you might have had to pay around £1,200 to get a reasonable 3D printer, but now you can get one now for £500 and print pretty things from the internet,” says Biggs.
Secondary schools – where, currently, 3D printers are part of the curriculum and are therefore more prevalent – want to buy more machines, says Biggs, but, because of a lack of a funding, they can’t get their hands on them. Meanwhile primary schools – unless they have good funding – don’t tend to bother, partly because 3D printing is not a curriculum requirement and also because staff don’t have the skills to use them.
In fact, this lack of knowledge of how to effectively use 3D printers is the second big barrier to adoption. It has slowed down adoption rates across all schools, believes Biggs. “Some teachers are willing to go out and teach themselves CAD [computer-aided] design, but others don’t have any training and lack the necessary skills.”
This knowledge gap is something that Alex McNaughton, a product design teacher at Bedales School in Hampshire, has also detected. “The biggest issue in terms of adoption of this type of technology is understanding how to effectively deploy it in the classroom,” he says.
“You can get your hands on cheap printers that will do a reasonable job but the learning that needs to take place in order to effectively deploy that in a learning environment, while doing what the curriculum requires, is a significant challenge.”
As a result, some schools that have splashed the cash on 3D printers are struggling to use the machines at all, never mind properly. Paul Woodward, who has taught design and technology for more than 20 years in a range of different schools, believes that 3D printing technology is “underutilised” in schools.
“Many [schools] use it as a novelty to show a new technology, but they don’t always use it how it should be used,” says Woodward. “In my school, they have not used the two machines as there is no technician, which I find a little ridiculous, to be frank.
“Staff should be able to use the machinery at their disposal, even if it is just to demonstrate the process, and students should be encouraged to explore the potential of 3D printing even if they don’t have one at school. We used to do the same with CAD and CAM [computer-aided manufacture]; you can still speculate on how it could be used in your project work.”
CAD software is, of course, used on 3D printers, and better exposure to the design tools as well as the printers themselves would potentially aid adoption rates, believes Gina Scala, director of marketing for worldwide education at 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys. “Today, 3D printing relies on technical computer-aided design skills,” she says. “Until CAD programs become as easy to use and pervasive as personal computing programs, we will not see the widespread adoption of 3D printers in general and in primary education.”
The tide is turning
That said, Scala thinks that the tide is slowly turning and more schools are finally looking to utilise 3D print technology.
It’s a view shared by Paul Croft, director of 3D printer manufacturer Ultimaker and founder of the CREATE Education Project, a collaborative platform designed to provide free resources and support to help UK educators introduce and embed 3D printing technology in the classroom.
Although Croft concedes that 3D printing has yet to reach its potential in the classroom, he thinks there are some promising areas of development.
“If we look to other countries that have made strong investments in this area and look at the progress being made in the industry, then it is inevitable that we will see 3D printers as a key education tool in years to come, but putting a number on that in these stormy political times is impossible,” he says.
The company started the CREATE project in 2014 after listening to the challenges teachers faced embedding new technologies in the classroom. “At the time, people in education were just starting to hear about 3D printing and the hype bubble was growing,” Croft explains.
“When the consumer segment crashed, along with it went some of the buzz driving the adoption in education, but pioneers had embraced 3D printing as a powerful tool for STEM learning and as a reinvigorating influence for design and technology.
“Higher education has continued to use additive manufacturing for cost-effective research and for bringing complex theories to life, and there has been a trickle down through the system.”
To ensure that trickle continues, Ultimaker has created a free 3D printer loan scheme. In addition to running education outreach activities in South Wales, and having its own dedicated education centre equipped with 3D printers, Renishaw operates a similar initiative, according to Biggs.
“We loan the machines out to schools to try to bridge that gap,” he explains. “They can have them for three months and I go out and teach them how to use them.”
He also shows schools how to use some free software tools, such as the web-based Tinkercad, which is designed for primary students, and Autodesk’s Fusion 360, which Biggs says is targeted at secondary schools and is free to use by every educational institution in the UK.
“For me, this is all about training for teachers and students,” says Biggs. “They need to know the capabilities of what these machines can do and how they can help the curriculum in schools, and I don’t think they realise that at the moment.”
Training will aid adoption rates
Once the appropriate training is put in place, it will aid adoption rates. But even when the use of 3D printers becomes more widespread, teachers shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that 3D printing is a miraculous technology that will solve all manufacturing needs, says McNaughton.
“This is a great new technology and it has transformed many facets of manufacturing, but it is still just one tool amid many other tools and processes used,” he explains.
“It is useful, it is beneficial and we are reaping benefits of it in the schools that use it creatively, but it is not necessarily the one thing that will transform how we do things.”
Although the revolution that Gove spoke about when he launched his 3D print programme hasn’t, as yet, occurred, the Tories haven’t given up on their ambitions for the technology. Just last year, in an exclusive interview with Tes, Conservative peer Lord Baker said that every school in the country should have 3D printers.
“I would like to see a rank of 3D printers in every comprehensive and some in primary schools. Because 3D printers are going to change everything. Everything,” he said.
His prediction may well be right, but before 3D printers are able to change “everything”, it is clear that there are a number of major obstacles that need to be overcome.
Simon Creasey is a freelance journalist