If you think of digital design and 3-D printing as the place where art and STEM curriculum intercept, it can lead to a new level of student creativity. Basically, any small object they can create on-screen can be made for the real world with the right software and a 3-D printer.
At $1,599, Dremel’s Idea Builder 3D40-EDU has everything you need to create a 3-D design and printing program at school. It’s perfect for group use and comes with a copy of Autodesk’s Print Studio software for PCs and Macs as well as apps for iOS and Android tablets. It also works with Microsoft’s 3D Builder, 123D Sculpt and Tinker CAD. On the downside, the 3D40 printer doesn’t work with directly Chromebooks.
The Dremel printer works by melting a Polylactic Acid (PLA) filament in a hot nozzle and layering it inside the printer. In addition to replaceable tape for the stage that the items are created on, the kit includes four spools of different colored filament and tools for cleaning the printer’s nozzle.
For something so complicated, the 3D40 was a breeze to get going. It took about an hour to set up the device, connect a PC to it, update the software and get the first model started. Unfortunately, the printer and software are sometimes balky, refusing to accept commands. This can make using the printer an exercise in frustration – at least at first.
The 20.3- by 16.0- by 15.9-inch printer fits comfortably on a countertop or extra desk, but make sure it is set up on a sturdy base because the printer’s head moves back and forth vigorously and can cause the device to wobble. The printer’s interior lights up brightly so kids can watch their creations come into being and the system can make objects up to 10- by 6- by 6.7-inches.
Inside, the 3D40 has a 2GHz dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage for designs. You can put designs on a thumb drive of up to 32GB of capacity; an earlier 3D40 model allows the use of SD cards. Happily, the files are lightweight and are generally less than a few megabytes each.
In addition to a USB port upfront for connecting a thumb drive, the 3D40 has an on/off switch and Ethernet port as well as WiFi for networking the printer. If you plan to network the printer, you might need to set up a proxy server, depending on how the school’s LAN is set up.
There’s a 3.5-inch color touch screen to make selections, display what the printer is working on and show the nozzle’s temperature while it warms up. The printer has hinged clear plastic doors on top and in the front with sensors that warn they’re open. The fact that you can’t lock the doors is short-sighted because the print head gets as hot as nearly 400-degrees Fahrenheit when in use, more than enough to cause serious burns on an inquisitive child’s fingers.
The printer uses the fused filament fabrication technique where a long spool of PLA string is pulled into a hot extruder head that melts it as it moves around the stage selectively laying down 100 micron (4 mil) thick layers of plastic. Unfortunately, the PLA has an acrid smell when it melts, so you might want to have a fan nearby. The PLA filament is 1.75 milimeters thick and is easy to get online or at Home Depot and hobby stores. It costs about $30 a spool that’s good for about 15 to 20 items.
As the system extrudes layers of PLA plastic, it quickly consolidates, cools and hardens and you can see the shape of the item emerge. On the downside, the 3D40 lacks the internal video camera that the latest Makerbot Replicator+ has for monitoring progress.
Be warned, the process is extremely slow and only slightly faster than watching paint dry. While small things like key chains can take 20 or 30 minutes, a large and complex item can take as long as 9 hours to complete.
Happily, it has a printer queue so that kids can digitally draw their objects and send them to the printer to be executed. I found that putting the printer file onto a thumb drive and having the 3D40 do them one at a time works just as well. On the downside, the printer can only work directly with its own .gsdrem file format, which can be exported from the included Dremel or Printer Studio software.
There’s a whole world of potential objects out there from personalized name tags and tablet holders to molecular models and instructional aids, like a set of numbers and letters and a one-cylinder engine. At any time, you can let imagination and creativity take the lead by having kids start from scratch and design something original.
With the 3D40-EDU product you also get 10 well thought-out lesson plans that range from a simple Pythagorean proof to how plasmids can transfer DNA into new cells. They include directions and all the 3-D building files needed, although some benefit from creating some parts in different colors, not an easy task. More are available at mystemkits.com.
For those teachers who are new to this sort of thing, Dremel includes an online professional development course that can get anyone up to speed on in the ins and outs of 3-D design and printing. It’s a four-hour self-paced class that can keep you a step or two ahead of your students.
At $1,599, the educational 3D40 kit is well worth the extra four hundred dollars over the basic printer. It not only breathes life into STEM subjects but its output is only constrained by the imaginations of your students.
+ Complete kit
+ 100-micron resolution
+ Works with PCs, Macs and tablets
+ Replacement filament is easy to get
+ Included lesson plans and professional development course
+ Wide variety of projects available
- Acrid smell of melted plastic
- No Chromebook apps