As the Fab Lab Director for STEM School Chattanooga during the '14 - '15 school year, I was blessed to get to experience education with from a totally different view. One such blessing, was the opportunity to work with several 3D printers. Below is a synopsis of an email exchange I recently had with a colleague who was asking for advise on bringing 3D printing into her school. She had a small amount of experience with 3D printing and was in the process of writing for approximately $5,000 in education technology grants for her elementary school. If you are new to 3D printing but are interested in learning more about how it can impact a classroom, this may be a good place to start.
I am going to list a few printers below for you to consider. I will then list a brief description of why each one might be a good choice for you. I will also include a couple of software options to consider. My general thought is to spend your money on quality hardware and use free design software. The open source (and free) software community for 3D printing is robust and there is really no need to pay for design or rendering software in K-12 in my opinion.
3D Printer Options:
1. Airwolf 3D HD2x
All of the machines listed above can print in ABS and PLA filament types and the Makerbot can use dissolvable filament as well. You should probably know that ABS filament is technically toxic and every time it is used a small amount of toxic fumes are released in the print area. This is not unsafe for students, but you should probably just be aware. In my experience, ABS is much more forgiving with student prints.
Since you are just starting out, I would definitely stay away from delta-style printers. I love them for complex and bigger builds and they are usually available at similar cost to 3-axis printers, but they require significantly more design knowledge and technical expertise.
If it were me, I would consider buying one Airwolf 3D HDL and one FlashForge Creator Pro. It would give you some budgetary wiggle room for additional Kapton tape and filament and it would let you have a reliable single extruder printer and a well-reviewed dual extrusion printer within your budget.
As for software, all of the printers use their manufacturer's suggested print drivers and slicing software (like Makerbot desktop). All of these software packages are relatively similar and I would suspect you could figure them out if you have any experience with Makerbot's software at all. As for design, I would suggest looking at AutoDesk's 123D Design and 123D Make. Both are free and work nicely on iPad and Mac/PC. They are VERY user friendly and highly intuitive. My kindergartener is very close to being able to make her own designs on it on an iPad and the software allows users to import pre-built models as a base for their designs. Makerbot's repository on thingiverse will work with all of the printers I listed, but it will require a bit of formatting to get it imported properly on the non-makerbot printers. In my opinion, students should not be printing designs from repositories anyways so I don't consider this to be a legitimate issue.
You can also look at Sketch Up, which is free for students and teachers. It is by far the easiest to use, one of the most powerful 3D rendering software packages on the market. I have never used it with elementary students, but since it's free, it might be worth trying. High school students take to it very quickly and it really makes 3D design extremely intuitive once you learn the basic controls.
As for training, I would not suggest paying for training. Your printer manufacturer will have a variety of online videos to help you and usually their customer service is great. No one expects consumers to be 3D-printer experts. I spent a lot of time on the phone with the manufacturers the first few times I had troubleshoot (hardware especially). Also, while the machines come pre-assembled, some minor assembly will be required and you will learn a lot about the nuts-and-bolts as you do it. YouTube is probably the best training site available. If you had a bigger budget, I could see paying for training, but can likely get a local engineer to come out and help for free if you will let him/her use your printer occasionally (that's what I did and it worked out to be a great partnership).
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