What Can You Do with a 3D Printer in the College Classroom?

My son is graduating from the theater program at William & Mary this year with a focus on theater tech. That means he spent most of his four years of college building props, designing sets, and generally learning to master all the dangerous tools and techniques they use to make the wonderfully elaborate sets for the performances the W&M Theatre Department puts on at PBK Hall.

Learning Industry-Specific Software Is Just the Beginning with 3D Printing

This cute articulated elephant came out of our 3D printer a couple of days ago

This cute articulated elephant came out of our 3D printer a couple of days ago.

One of the cool technologies he learned as part of his training was an AutoCAD-type program, Vectorworks, specifically designed for theater applications like designing sets, furniture, and more. Vectorworks is incredibly useful in the theatre program for creating small scale models of sets and furniture, but once the student prints out the paper for scale 2D models of all the chairs and tables and grandfather clocks that will comprise the miniature set, the real fun of slicing and gluing starts. Students spend hours meticulously putting together small-scale objects to arrange on their small scale-sets to test for lighting, blocking, staging, etc.

Students spend time learning Vectorworks and then go back to the arts and crafts skills they learned in elementary school to finish their projects. There’s something to be said for craftsmanship, but as an academic technologist, I figured that there must be a way to give them 21st-century skills in producing these scale models from the beginning of the process to the end.

We in academic technology here at the College have been intrigued at the academic applications of 3D printing for a while, and I thought that this would be a great opportunity to investigate. Have the students learn Vectorworks, then have them continue their learning of high tech technologies by actually bringing those Vectorworks plans to fruition directly on a 3D printer. No need to spend hours with X-Acto knives and dabbing cardboard cutout furniture with toothpicks dipped in glue. Instead, print the entire scale set, ready-made, on a 3D printer.

Theater Is Just One of Many Disciplines Where 3D Printers Shine

While theater applications were the first ones that came to mind when I was considering the usefulness of a 3D printer, there are undoubtedly countless other uses in other disciplines. Art history could easily print scale statues or structures that students could interact with, artists could create sculptures, anthropologists could scan archaeology sites and print out scale models for students to study. The list goes on and on. And the best part is that using a 3D printer is really, really cool.

Lenin's bust took 5 hours to build

Lenin’s bust took five hours to build.

So we’ve had our fifth-generation MakerBot for a little over a week now, and here are our impressions:

  • If you’re pretty good with technology, the MakerBot is pretty easy to use, but it is not plug and play by any means.
  • Larger, more complicated items take a long time to make, and even smaller items can take an hour or more. This three-inch-tall bust of Lenin printed in just over five hours. That’s not a big deal except that while it’s being printed, you can’t print anything else.
  • The machine is noisy, so you don’t really want to have it sitting on your desk while you’re trying to do other work.
  • The noise is bad enough to keep you out of your office during a print job, but that’s nothing compared to the fumes the machine produces while it’s melting the plastic it extrudes to create the objects.

Here’s the machine in action:

So anyway, we’re still in the beginning stages of learning about how to print objects. Right now, we can print anything that already exists on Thingiverse, a sort of clearing house for 3D models. There are plenty of cool objects there, and once you download them, you can edit them using any number of free or paid software packages. The tool we’re trying now is called MeshMixer, free software from the fine people at AutoCAD. It isn’t very intuitive software for beginners, but we’re learning (slowly).

Let Us Know if You’re Interested in Seeing a 3D Printer in Action

MakerBot is a fun tool that we’d love to help our faculty members use for academic purposes, so if you’ve got any ideas about how you might be able to use this 3D printer in your academic program (or if you just want a preview of how it works), contact Mike Blum or Pablo Yañez and we can schedule a meeting or demonstration.


About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College