Final Report on Essentials Pilot Project Grant: 3-D Printing

Project reports from the first round of Essentials Pilot Project grants are coming in! As reports are received, they're added to the list of Essentials Pilot Project Grants. This is the report from a group exploring 3D Printing as Visual Literacy and Geospatial Thinking.

Dear Members of the Essentials Grant Committee,

We would like to thank the committee and the CIP for awarding my group the grant to explore 3D printing and its pedagogical use.  While things have not quite turned out how we envisioned, we’re well on our way and have high hopes of producing what we originally planned, though not on the same expedited timeline.

The Art History Department purchased a Makerbot Replicator 2 for its Visual Resources Center. Using the Essentials grant, I’d hoped we could obtain training and rapidly move from learning the basics of production to designing objects with a pedagogical focus. This proved to be wildly optimistic.  First, there are very few experts in this new field. We located one in Columbus, were negotiating with him to come to Kenyon (we had agreed on pay and dates) and he stopped replying to e-mails. We then tried to import an expert from Minnesota, but he declared he wasn’t confident enough to teach others. Frankly, both experts were self-taught. There really aren’t enough classes on this to create enough experts to teach others.  So we taught ourselves.

We un-boxed the printer, assembled it and started working through its basic functions and features. Although this model is the most “user-friendly” of 3-D printers, we learned that, despite the hype, this technology is not quite ready for widespread use by people who are not engineers.  After attending a few user group meetings in Columbus, we found that even engineers had regular problems with it.

Nonetheless, we were determined and spent most of the summer trouble-shooting the equipment, experimenting with issues such as temperature, distance from the plastic extruder to the buildplate, quality of print, etc.  Our success rate has grown to about 90% from around 5%.  Because the technology is basically polymer extrusion, so many physical things can affect a print’s success or failure. Because we are still working on getting to the point of reliable printing using other people’s designs, we have not yet begun to learn the Computer Assisted Drawing (CAD) programs that will enable us to create our own pieces, not just revise others.

We gave a public presentation on September 12, which was well-attended by students, faculty, staff, and some people from outside Kenyon.  Sarah Blick gave a brief lecture on how 3-D printing works and what we hoped to do with it, while Andrew Niemiec and John Pepple demonstrated how the printer works and showed and answered questions about what we’ve produced so far. What was most interesting is that it attracted people mostly from the Fine Arts and the Science Divisions. This gives us hope for further collaborations along those lines.

 Use of Grant Funds

Outside of the stipends, we used the majority of the funds to materials for printing, including purchase polymer filament, which cost about $40 per spool, a replacement motor, some lubricant grease, feeler gages, pliers, brushes, and other kinds of tools used to extract stuck filament and clean and maintain the machine. We also met for lunch a couple of times to discuss strategy after working with the printer.

 Pedagogical Issues

Because we have not yet learned CAD programming (we are planning to try and start doing this during the school year), we have been focusing on how we can use the objects currently available for downloading.  The art historian has printed a number of small architectural and sculptural models (and there are some spectacular ones) that she will use in class to help students understand spatial issues of three-dimensional space. The neuroscientist has printed up objects that create optical illusions which he plans on using to teach about sensory perceptions.  The mathematician has printed various geometric forms which she will use to teach certain equations. These projects directly relate to Visual Literacy and Geography and Interpretation of Spatial Phenomena as stipulated in the Essentials final reports.

 Drawbacks of 3-D printing, as it currently stands:

 --3D printing has severe material limits currently, especially with regard to the crystalline structure of materials and the number of materials that can be printed.

-- It then requires 3D geometries to be constructed via CAD software. Even then, many people do not have the knowledge of mechanical and structural science required to produce anything durable.

--Rapid prototyping and limited batch creation of items is where 3D printing really works, but right now it pales in comparison to injection molding when creating making large quantities.

–It is time consuming.  A fine-quality print can take up to 30 hours to  complete.

 Benefits of 3-D printing, as it currently stands:

–There are many models available (for free) of all kinds of objects from buildings to models of proteins. This means that professors have a wide variety of pieces that they can incorporate in their teaching without designing something from scratch.

 –You can modify many of these models quite easily.

–Understanding (and watching) how a 3D printer constructs an object spatially is educational in itself.

–If you are designing something, you can produce a prototype fairly quickly

 Again, thank you for the opportunity.  We learned a lot and are looking forward exploring more ways in which this technology can help us teach notions of VisualLiteracy and Geography and Interpretation of Spatial Phenomena


Sarah Blick, Art History                      Andrew Niemiec, Neuroscience

Judy Holdener, Mathematics              Tim Sullivan, Physics

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