Of Viral 3D and Perpetual Printing

Self-replicating 3D printers are making headway in a very unlikely sector — education.

By Melissa Goertzen, staff writer

In 2005, Adrian Bowyer at the University of Bath founded the RepRap Project. Short for “Replicating Rapid Prototype, its objective was to create a self-replicating 3D printer, to allowed the creation of complex products…without the need for industrial infrastructure and heavy capital investment.”

The open-source printer, dubbed a RepRap, retails for around $2,500 – significantly less than the $100,000 price tag prior to open-source machines.

In June 2012, Dalhousie University Libraries purchased a MakerBot Replicator 3D printer, which builds on the progress of the RepRap Project, to examine how 3D printing impacts library services.

The initiative was spearheaded by Michael Groenendyk and Riel Gallant, two graduate students in the  library and information studies program, as well as Marc Comeau the IT director.

Groenendyk and Comeau both agree that open-source initiatives play a role in the growing accessibility of 3D printers.

“What we really see disrupted right now is the price because traditionally, larger companies put a monopoly on [technologies],” says Groenendyk.  “So in the past, if you wanted a printer, you’d have to buy it through them. They would charge a high cost for the machinery and materials as well.”

Comeau says that 3D printers are following similar development trends as personal computers during the 1970s and ’80s.

“Looking at the dawn of PCs, a lot of software was developed collaboratively in garages before anything really got off the ground, and then it started to spawn off into the companies that give us the products we see today,” says Comeau. “Right now, we have that open-source movement as a disruptive force in the 3D printing world and it’s busting open a whole lot of doors.”

Right now, students are taking advantage of the 3D printer to test ideas they develop both in and out of the classroom — and their projects are not restricted to academics.  Many students conduct tests with recreational models.

Comeau and Groenendyk are studying these projects because they demonstrate what the machine is capable of and how it can be used in creative ways.  “There’s a lot of exploring going on,” says Comeau.  “It’s interesting to see how they’re putting [the technology] to use” says Groenendyk.

3D Printers: Innovative Engines in the Classroom

The application of 3D printing in teaching and learning environments is a new topic of interest for educators.  In 2011, MakerBot Industries rolled out a 3D student curriculum in New York City schools.  Teachers called the printers “innovative engines in the classroom” that allow students to develop ideas and build prototypes.  They also give students a chance to tinker with designs that don’t work and try again.

At post-secondary institutions, students replicate artifacts for examination, create topography or population maps, and develop 3D models of molecules, cells, and viruses.   Some have even created simple printing presses by 3D printing the typography of manuscripts.

3D printers also have the potential to revolutionize distance learning programs.  For instance, the 3D Model Repository at Dalhousie University Libraries houses images of models created on campus. Students can view the objects from personal computers or produce them them at 3D printers in libraries close to home. Groenendyk says this setup “sends physical information vast distances without having to worry about shipping costs or losing the original copy.”

Images uploaded to the 3D Model Repository also provide a competitive edge when their creators hit the pavement to look for jobs.  Each digital image has a unique URL that can be sent to potential employers.  Essentially, the models provide a visual showcase of acquired skill sets. 

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