What a 3D Printer Taught Me About Learning

If you aren’t an ardent follower of the maker movement, or involved in it yourself, you might have missed the hype about 3D printing. 3D printing has grown from a niche market for creating prototypes into a multi-billion dollar business that’s attracted the attention of President Obama, who has noted its potential for bringing back manufacturing jobs lost overseas.

A Micro 3D Printer doing its thing.

Supporters of 3D printing are quick to point out its educational value, where students can bring their digital designs into the physical world. The most straightforward educational uses for 3D printing align most closely with the so-called STEAM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math), but there are a number of other fields, such as anthropology and history, where scholars are exploring its potential for both teaching and research.

However, my own recent experience with 3D printing is far more modest than, say, how some scientists are printing living cells. In fact, I’ve only successfully printed one thing in 3D: a small clover cup (aka “shot glass”) for St. Patrick’s Day. Since then, I haven’t been able to replicate my success, which in fact was predicated by a number of failed attempts.

The thing I’ve learned about 3D printing is that the technology is still quite crude—but its nascent state and my attempts to get it working have yielded insights into my own learning process. Without further ado, here are four things my 3D printer has taught me:

Prior knowledge can help, or hinder, my attempts to learn something new.

When I began happily unpacking and installing the printer, I was expecting it to function much like its laser and ink jet printer cousins. That is to say, I assumed I could simply plug it in and begin printing stuff out immediately. Only after several aborted print jobs, where not one bit of plastic came out the print nozzle, did I learn that my assumptions were ill founded. After a lot of internet research, I learned that 3D printers need to be calibrated, that the plastic “ink” or filament needs to be spooled and extruded, and that there are such things like rafts and supports that are often printed in addition to the actual object itself. Forget plug-and-play simplicity: it’s more like plug, learn, and play. And repeat.

The author’s sole 3D printed objected, now a paperclip holder.

Sometimes it’s best to dispense with the instruction manual.

The paltry six-page instruction manual that came with the printer wasn’t very helpful. There wasn’t a word on calibrating the device, much less descriptions for rafts (the plastic platforms that printed objects sit on) and supports (pieces of plastic that support an object’s shape). For instance, loading the plastic filament requires not only finesse but also brute force, and I didn’t quite understand that until I watched a YouTube video—not the company’s—that helpfully explained the process. Sometimes the proper authorities—in this case, the manufacturer—do not have all the right information. Thank goodness for YouTube, which hosts tutorials on just about everything (including our very own Ruben Parra solving problems in thermochemistry).

Know when to take a break and try again later.

Have you ever worked on a project until you were too tired to make good decisions and ended up breaking whatever it was you were working on? If not, I’m envious of you, because I do this all too often. I’ve broken tools, lost parts, and generally have made a mess of things when the smartest thing to have done was take a break and come back to the problem later on. In fact, at least one study has shown that taking a break to work on an unrelated task can increase your creativity. When you notice yourself getting tired, remember to take a break and come back to the project later. That way you’ll be refreshed and more apt to find solutions to problems.

There’s always much more to learn.

I’ve just skimmed the surface of 3D printing and have barely begun the process of learning how to create my own designs. Even though I’ve come to learn some of the vocabulary and am gaining practical experience with printing, there is much more for me to learn. One great thing about being a part of the DePaul community is that there are resources and support for continuous learning. This includes access to Lynda.com, which hosts a number of 3D printing tutorials, as well as the Innovation Lab at DePaul, which offers 3D printing services to the DePaul community. And there is always YouTube, of course, where you can find channels like 3D Printing Nerd.