By Ed Finn
Higher education is obsessed with 3-D printing. Makerspaces and fab labs are sprouting like extruded weeds on college campuses, and everyone from business school deans to librarians are asking how 3-D printing and fabrication can be implemented in teaching. It’s a compelling vision: With rapid prototyping we can create a physical version of any object we can imagine, encouraging students to combine design, critical thinking, and STEM (or is it STEAM?) skills as they remake the world.
The problem is, 3-D printing takes a really long time. The low- and mid-range printers that most students will encounter in their school facilities take hours to produce even small objects, and they usually use just one kind of material (typically a plastic that the printer head can melt and then deposit in carefully planned layers of material). In my home department at Arizona State University, the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, we have an amazing fabrication lab with multiple printers, laser cutters, and other devices, but every semester it’s the same story. Assigning my class of 40 students to produce something on the printer means 40 print jobs that each might take hours to complete. And that’s assuming that students who have never used these tools before came up with a design that’s actually going to work on the first try. (It usually doesn’t.)