By Phil Cotton learnbylayers founder.
Choosing a 3D printer for your classroom is a major decision. The question of ‘what is the best 3D printer for the classroom’ is one that goes through every teachers mind. If you are planning to start integrating the technology into lessons, then the choice of machine can be the difference between a great experience and one that can be a frustrating headache. Teachers are busy, we need machines that are reliable, require little maintenance, easy to operate and cost effective to purchase. Budget will probably be a major factor in the decision making process as well.
I have been 3D printing for almost ten years in the classroom and have used pretty much all the major brands out there. I’ve used the cheapest kit form 3D printers, alongside machines that cost thousands that can bust your departmental budget. So my views here are based upon my own personal experience in the classroom.
When deciding on a printer, it’s a buyers market out there with 3D printers. There is so much choice and so much information it can be over whelming. Visit a companies website and they will claim they have the best machine on the market, but what’s the differentiator from one machine to the next? What features in a machine do you actually need to be successful in the classroom?
How much is your budget?
First of all, how much money do you have to spend? At the end of the day this will be the main factor. If your budget is tight then you may only have a few hundred pound/dollars to spend (don’t worry you can have some serious fun with a small amount of cash). If you have thousands to spend then you can easily kit yourself out with the top branded machines out there with all the snazzy features on the machine. You should ask yourself the question of what do you actually need to get printing in the classroom? Machines that have every feature under the sun sound great, but that means more things to go wrong. Sometimes less is more.
Where will your printer go in the classroom?
This may sound like a silly question, but it’s actually quite important. The placement of your machine in your classroom will have an impact upon how you teach 3D printing. Are you intending to have the machine close to learners or will the 3D printers have their own dedicated space in a corner or even in a different room?
Logic says have it in the classroom so students can get the full experience of using the machine and watching their designs print. If this is the case then great, but make sure you follow the relevant safety recommendations of ensuring that children can’t access the moving part of the printer or touch the hot end of the extrude.
Also, you have to consider ventilation and do you have an adequate airflow in the classroom. In the UK we have CLEAPPS who have published guidance on the issue. Worth a read where ever you are based in the world.
How much do you intend to print?
Are you going full out and integrating 3D printing into every year group? Or will it be kept small focusing on one particular age range? If you intend to dive head first and roll the technology out to every class you teach, then it would be advisable to buy more than one machine.
This will make printing out class sets of designs significantly quicker and also allow for any downtime for performing maintenance on a machine (maintenance is minimal, but you do have to keep the machine in tip top condition for optimal outcomes).
Build the machine yourself or straight out of the box?
This is a big decision. Build yourself machines that come in kit form will be much cheaper but require some basic technical knowledge of assembly. In my opinion if you can follow instructions from ikea, then you can build a 3D printer.
There are also many educational benefits of the classroom teacher building the machine in class with students present. You could even get students involved and use it as a teaching tool depending on the class size.
If you want to avoid this step and have a machine ready to use out the box this will cost your more, but if you aren’t confident in assembly of products or haven’t got the time, then this should be your best option.
Budget friendly options.
So after years of 3D printing in the classroom, this is where I would spend my money if I was considering what is the best 3D printer for the classroom. This will also only set you back a few hundred pound/dollars.
I would invest in a creality ender 3 or the newer ender 5 version. I have used these for the past few years and they are work horses and great for the classroom. They need to be covered as they have an open build volume, there are many cheap and easy ways to do this (this example on the right is from thingiverse is great and a really cheap). If you have a bit more money then there are some great options, one by Kora here.
Why do I think this fits into the catergory of best 3d printer for the classroom? It’s cheap and packs a punch, have a look on amazon and they come in under £200 in the UK and probably not that much more in dollars in the US. I credit this machine with the reason why so many schools can consider a 3d printer in their classroom, down to how affordable it is.
When I first started out, my first 3D printer was £3500. With that budget I could buy at least 10 of these machines. I would advise buying from the official company store so you know you are getting an original. There are many clones out there.
Secondly, it’s easy to put together, approximate time of assembly is around 1 and a half hours. All your need is an Allen key and you get everything you need to start 3D printing included in the box.
Thirdly, it’s a no bones printer. It does what it says and it does it well. The print quality and accuracy from this machine is excellent and just as good as more expensive machines that cost thousands. Also it has a heated build plate.
Fourthly, its so easy to use, easy to calibrate and easy to load and unload filament. As it is manual calibration, this drastically increases your print time as once your have leveled the bed, you can print multiple parts one after the other without needed to re-calibrate after each print. With printers that have auto calibration, they calibrate the bed on every print and this adds significant time to the print. If you have a whole class set of models to print out, auto calibration can really slow you down. Also if have an expensive feature like this on a machine and it’s breaks, it can be a real headache.
Fifthly, you can buy replacement nozzles and consumables extremely cheap on amazon. A pack of 20 nozzles can be bought for £6.99. Read our hints and tips article here on how to change a nozzle. On my first ever classroom 3D printer, a new nozzle cost nearly £100 for one! This is how far the technology has come in less than a decade.
Replacing a nozzle would be a nightmare back then. With the ender 3 using standards MK8 nozzles, I can replace a nozzle in under a minute. Furthermore, the larger creality model the CR-10 uses the same nozzle, so if you have multiple different creality printers you can use the consumables on both 3D printers..
The sixth point to consider, you can ‘hack the hell’ out of this machine. Imagine having a 3D printer in your classroom that you have upgraded and customized yourself? The conversations with your students will be endless. Also, as a teacher there is a certain level of Kudos that can be achieved when you have built the machine and then improved it further by printing upgrades to the machine. There is a very active community on thingiverse with thousands of models available for free. Also by updating your classroom 3D printer you will save money in the long run as you extend it’s lifespan.
Seventh, it has a really intuitive pause feature. Leaving your classroom after a hard day of teaching, then just pause the print and turn the printer off and go home. Next morning when you turn the power back on, you will be prompted to ‘resume print’. This will resume the print exactly at the point where you paused it meaning you can print extremely large objects without having to leave it running unattended.
If you are on a low budget then I really do think this has to be an option when considering the question of ‘what’s the best classroom 3D printer’. It’s cheap, easy to run, easy to maintain, excellent print quality and it’s used in schools around the world. It’s a barebones 3D printer, powered by SD card and best run through CURA slicing software and will plough out the models no problem. Learnbylayers curriculum will work perfectly with the creality ender series as the lesson use CURA to slice models.
Best 3D printer for mid range price point
There are two options here; the flashforge creator pro (or the slightly more expensive Inventor series) and the Prusa MK3 series. Both of these machines are an excellent choice for use in the classroom and are a popular choice by teachers around the world. We have a curriculum that is dedicated to the Flashforge brand of 3D printers if this is an option for you.
1. The flashforge creator Pro is a fully enclosed 3D printer that is an absolute workhorse of a machine. It will just print and print and is a highly reliable machine. The added benefit of this classroom 3D printer is that is has a duel extruder, so you can print in two different types of materials in one print. This can have real benefits when printing complex parts that require supports, as you can use soluble PVA filament for the support structures which will disolve easily in water.
2. This 3D printer comes with a heated bed and ultra strong chassis allowing for ultra precise prints, along with LED’s inside the chamber so you can see the prints during the printing process.
Also it’s enclosed which means you don’t have to worry about children’s wandering hands when the 3D printer is in operation. This is a massive advantage as safety is paramount in the classroom. You still have to be careful with ventilation and ensure that there is fresh air supply in the room when printing.
3. Easy to use LCD screen. Again, like the creality ender 3D printer, this works from a micro SD card. While this can be frustrating as they are so small and easy to misplace, it’s worth the sacrifice to save money. For some reason 3D printers that use a USB stick cost significantly more.
4. This machine used an MK10 nozzle which is more expensive than the creality machines MK8 version, but they can still be found really cheap on amazon.
5. A downside to this is the print volume. If you want to print tall objects you will struggle as the maximum height is 150mm when compared with the creaity ender 3 which has a 250 mm height. You can do a lot with that extra 100mm.
The Prusa brand is one of the most popular 3D printers in the world. The company has won lots of awards for their machines and can self claim that they have the best 3D printer in the world. Visit their homepage and there is a vast array of badges from all sectors of the 3D printing industry heaping praise on their machines. It’s well deserved, they are an excellent machine and you will also find reviews from leading figures in the community and how good this machine is on their homepage.
This 3D printer comes in two options, a self build which is cheaper or pre-assembled option. If it was me spending this amount of money on a 3D printer, I would splash out and buy the pre-assembled version, then you know it has been tested in house by trained staff.
Benefits for the classroom.
Firstly, this thing is almost silent when 3D printing. It may sound like an insignificant feature, but if you are trying to teach a lesson with a 3D printer running in the background, the noise can distract learners. The Prusa MK3 is well known for being an ultra quiet machine. Sometimes teachers need a bit of piece and quiet!
Secondly, It has a healthy build volume at 210 mms tall and can print at a speed of 200mm/s. This is fast and has benefits for teachers when they are printing off large numbers of student work. If you need to turn around prints fast then this will do it.
Thirdly, this has automatic bed leveling, while this will add to the print time of a model, it takes the hassle out of manual leveling. While its not that hard to level a print bed, it’s another variable to think about in 3D printing. With this machine you can just press print and know the bed will be level.
Fourthly, It has a filament sensor, alerting you when you are about to run out of filament. This is a very handy feature as you can run down complete rolls of filament and easily swap them over mid print.
Finally, It has a easily removable magnetic bed that you can remove after the print has finished. This is handy as removing the print off the bed away from the machine, means there’s no risk of disrupting the calibration of the machine. When trying to take prints of the bed when still on the machine you can easily offset the bed calibration.
In terms of what’s the best 3D printer for the classroom for mid range budgets, these two are tried and tested. If you choose the flashforge then it’s enclosed but with a reduced build volume. If you go for the prusa, it’s open so will need an enclosure, but it’s packed with great features, almost silent and is known to be a workhorse of a machine.
Best 3D printer for the classroom when you have a load of cash to splurge!
Ultimaker are one of the most popular 3D printer brands in the world and they have excellent machines. They made their claim to fame with the U2 variant which was widely adopted in classrooms globally. Since the Ultimaker 2, they have added a third generation machine and now a version 5 of their model with significantly enhanced features. Take no prisoners, an Ultimaker will cost you thousands, but the outcomes and reliability are outstanding. I have used the ultimaker original, ultmaker 2 and the Ultimaker 3 machines and they are excellent and one of the best type of 3D printer for classroom use.
The Ultimaker 3 has duel extruder, meaning you can print in multi colour and multi material.
The resolution of print quality can go as small as 20 micron, that’s insanely accurate for a filament based 3D printer. You do have to ask the question in a high school lesson, do you need to be this accurate? But if your printer can do this, then why not use the feature.
The machine is enclosed at the sides and can even print in high temperature materials such as carbon fibre and even ‘glass’. In a classroom environment this may not be a regular need to print with materials other than PLA, but the option is there. I have printed parts in carbon fibre before in a lesson. The next version the U5 version has a total enclosure with doors on the front as well as the sides enclosed.
One of the great features of this 3D printer is it has a USB port, meaning that students can slice their own models, save to USB and easily load them into the machine to print. This is rare in 3D printers, as mentioned most use micro SD cards that can be fiddly to use, especially if you have chunky fingers.
The U2 and U3 have one of the most easiest LDC screen displays I have seen on a 3D printer. It literally is plug and play. While the U3 and above have wifi capabilities, this can be very challenging to set up on a school network and from experience I wouldn’t bother with wifi printing on any machine. It just creates a headache.
Also, if you ever have any internet connectivity issues then wifi printing can be a pain. Every teacher I know has encountered the school network going down at some point, the last thing you want is a print failing as the wifi has dropped out. Using these machines independent of a network is the best way in my opinion.
Formlabs form 2/3
Now this is the Ferrari of 3D printers. If you are a total beginner to 3D printing and have never used one in a classroom before then I would advise against this. However, if you have the money to spend, want to future proof your classroom and are up for some serious bit of tech in your classes, go for it!
If you do get one of these you are in star trek land. This would only be suitable for the classroom when teaching older children due to the coshh (control of substances hazardous to health) regulations.
This 3D printer prints with resin, not filament and produces insanely accurate parts that can be compared with injection molded plastic parts. Even though this prints layer by layer, once the print has finished you can’t visibly see any layer lines due to how precise this can print.
If you are using this 3D printer in the classroom you need to dedicate significant space to it as you need a wash station and isopropyl alcohol for cleaning the print after they have come out the machine, then you need a UV curing station to harden the print. It’s a big set up.
Advantages of this 3D printer.
It doesn’t use filament, it uses liquid plastic resin. This tends to be more expensive than filament, but the quality is far superior. The outcomes will blow your mind.
There is no need to load filament, you just insert a resin cartridge and press print and the machine does the rest.
It used lasers in the printing process (Sterolithograhpy) and having this in your classroom is ultra cool. You will have manufacturing standard machinery in your lessons. In terms of preparing students for the technology they may use in industry, then this is it, nothing comes close.
Formlabs have their own slicer software called pre-form which is extremely easy to use.
We have a curriculum that is aligned to formlabs machines and have showcased past teachers who are using the technology in their lessons. A special mention to Stuart Douglas (now teaching in Rugby school Thailand) for his use of the Formlabs machines in his lessons. Truly outstanding outcomes shown in this news post last year.
If you have the money to spend then I would go for the Ultimaker brand of machines over the formlabs, due to simplicity of use, however if you are wanting to really kit your classroom out and you have a massive chunk of money, get both, they will revolutionize your lessons.
What I want to stress in this blog post is how accessible 3D printing is to classroom teachers. With such a wide range of machines out there for you to choose from, it can be a stressful experience picking the right machine. All of the 3D printers in this list, I have used and would buy again given a pot of money.
You have to consider what your budget is, how often you intend to use 3D printing in your lessons and how much time you want to spend getting set up. If you have the time to build the machine yourself, this will save you money and you will learn a great deal. If you want an out of the box solution, then you will pay more for it, but there isn’t the added task of assembling the machine and tinkering with it to get the optimum print settings.
By Phil Cotton, learnbylayers founder.
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