What is 3D printing?

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a production technique that creates a three-dimensional object from a computer-aided design (CAD) file. The term covers several different processes that see one or more materials – typically plastic, metal, wax or composite – being deposited layer by layer to build a shape.

The entire process is controlled by a computer which makes 3D printing a cost-effective, efficient and accurate method to create objects of almost any geometry or complexity. Today, 3D printing is used in every industry to produce prototypes, tools and jigs, components and end-use parts.

3D printers come in various sizes, from small enough to fit on a benchtop to large-format industrial machines.

Large printers can produce bigger objects, but the machines take up more space and cost significantly more than benchtop printers. Achieving a successful print is also more complex on a large-format printer due to the volume of material and printing time involved.

How is 3D printing transforming education?

The are many advantages of 3D printing in education, including:  

  • Helping to keep students engaged
  • Simplifying complicated subjects and concepts
  • Bringing theoretical ideas to life
  • Encouraging collaboration
  • Introducing students to modern manufacturing processes
  • Preparing students for the future workplace and careers
  • Producing affordable and fully customizable teaching aids

In just a few decades, computers have dramatically transformed the teaching and learning experience. 3D printing in education will have a similarly profound and positive impact, but in a much shorter time.

3D printing has become a critical tool to enhance the learning process for schoolchildren, apprentices, college students, researchers and teachers. The technology refines creative and practical skills, brings concepts and theories to life and provides an active learning environment.

Thanks to 3D printing, learners have the freedom to design, think, create and engage with the world in new and meaningful ways. Additionally, the excitement and interest surrounding 3D printing boost learner engagement, especially in those who prefer hands-on experiences.

3D printing enables students across every level to produce highly complex, unique objects that would be hard if not impossible to make any other way. What’s more, such designs can be made quickly, easily and customized. Another advantage is the opportunity to become familiar with a technology used in a wide array of sectors and professions.

Several factors lie behind the rapid growth of 3D printing in education like a greater appreciation of the technology and its benefits and the ever-expanding database of open-source teaching resources and guides. 3D printers have also become more widely accessible and affordable, as well as more intuitive and easier to use – important for novice and younger users.  

While 3D printing in education initially focused on science, technology and art lessons, the technology is increasingly used across almost every subject area, from history and math to geography and drama. Printers have also become commonplace in university research laboratories, vocational training centers, after-school clubs and libraries.

Yet, the use of 3D printing in education is far from ubiquitous. Not every school or education provider has one, and those that do tend to use them for a limited number of applications. That may change as the technology becomes more inexpensive and more people become aware of and understand the benefits.

The rise of on-demand manufacturing platforms and community makerspaces, many of which offer 3D printing services, could be an option for schools unable to buy and manage their own fleet of printers. 3D printer manufacturers and distributors also provide discounts on equipment for educational purposes with free teaching guides, materials and lesson plans.

What skills does 3D printing in education develop?

3D printing in education helps to build a wide range of skills, both directly and indirectly, across all levels of learning. The most common are:

  • Design and creativity
  • Computer literacy, especially digital design tools
  • Problem-solving
  • 3D modeling
  • Critical-thinking and research
  • Teamwork and communication
  • STEM (science, technology, engineering, math)
  • Persistence and iterative improvement
  • Visualization and spatial awareness 
  • Entrepreneurship  

3D printing is helping schools generate cost savings

Almost all teachers use some form of physical learning aid in the classroom. These range from simple diagrams and models to full-scale experiments or props to help bring a storybook to life.

3D printing open-source learning aids instead of purchasing them from retailers such as Amazon could save teachers as much as 86%, according to a study by Michigan Technological University. 

The study evaluated various learning aid examples, ranging from a clock and periodic table puzzle to models of the Colosseum and the Great Wall of China. Researchers analyzed the functionality, mass ratios, safety and energy consumption, alongside printing and assembly costs, to determine a dollar-to-kilogram cost for printing.

This study also demonstrated that teachers globally are embracing 3D printing in education. The results show that the average learning aid evaluated in the study was downloaded more than 1,500 times and presumably printed as many times.

The researchers concluded that 3D printing in education not only saves schools money but it also provides a return on investment of more than 100%. According to one of the research team, “It is clear that 3D printing various educational aids provides high savings in the classroom and in the school in almost any context.”

Examples of 3D printing in education

There are limitless applications for 3D printing in education; the only restriction is the imagination of teachers and students. Some of the most common uses are:


3D printers can create ultra-realistic and accurate models of almost anything, from past and present objects to models which illustrate scientific or mathematical principles. Examples include planets, skeletons, vehicles, buildings, historical artifacts and an Archimedes' screw.

These models help teachers better explain what something is, how it works and how it interacts in the real world. Being able to hold, inspect and manipulate an object provides students with a richer, more interactive educational experience compared to a diagram or photograph.


Research shows that using games in teaching helps increase student participation, reinforces learning and builds social skills like collaboration and communication. There are numerous examples of 3D-printed educational puzzles. These range from simple tools, such as jigsaws and games to teach fractions and decimals, to complex bridge-building sets.  


For a long time, students have only been able to respond to tasks theoretically. In business studies, for example, students are often asked to identify a need and design a product that fills it. The product is rarely made – at least not in its final, marketable form. 3D printing changes that.

Students can now design, test, refine and create a finished working product that can be launched and sold. Batches of products can be made quickly, cheaply, locally and in small numbers. They can also be individually customized and modified in response to market feedback. More and more companies have roots in classroom projects, with 3D printing a key enabler for many of them.    

3D printing is transforming how students approach design

OTH Regensburg (OTH) is one of the largest technical universities in southern Germany and offers more than 45 degree programs to 11,000 students. OTH is also home to the Sensorik-Applikationszentrum (SappZ), a center where students use applied research and engineering, in combination with 3D printing, to develop sensor applications for the automotive, medical, industrial, electronic and mechanical industries.

SappZ is a crucial interface between the university’s research activities and the world of business and industry. It is an innovation hub where concepts become realities. 3D printing has had a profound impact on the center due to its speed, accuracy and multi-material capabilities.

3D printing has transformed how students design and produce objects with superior accuracy and function. The students and researchers at SappZ use PolyJet technology by innovative 3D printing solutions provider Stratasys. PolyJet offers a wide variety of materials which has opened up a diverse range of applications for students.

The center typically 3D prints large and small functional parts with very complex, precise geometries. These include sensor housings and mechanical prototypes, as well as parts for their own lab equipment and experimental set-ups, and projects with other departments.

Access to 3D printing has increased the quality of student projects and even more importantly, it is also changing students' mindsets. By removing the limitations inherent to traditional manufacturing techniques, 3D printing enables students to design and create without barriers. Who knows what innovations that will unlock in the future?

What are the limitations of 3D printing in education?

3D printing in education has a far-reaching positive impact on the learning experience. The technology has almost limitless growth opportunities across all ages, skill levels and subjects.

Exciting innovations are being driven by improvements in the quality and detail of printed objects (known as resolution), flexibility and greater ease of use. Yet, there are limits to the use of 3D printing in education.

  • COST

If someone is unfamiliar with the technology, they may believe that bringing 3D printing into a classroom will be too expensive. Yet, there are affordable printing options and some machine manufacturers provide educational discounts.

Governments also recognize the boost that 3D printing in education can provide and have dedicated funding programs to help schools buy printers and train teachers to use them effectively.

However, 3D printing does carry a cost, both initially in the printers themselves and the recurring cost of replacing consumables like print materials and routine maintenance.


Though growing in prevalence, 3D printing in education is not yet a mainstream fixture – certainly outside of technical colleges and universities. Teachers may be unaware how 3D printing can enhance and enrich the curriculum or how easily it can be integrated into lessons.

For schools that have purchased a 3D printer, this unfamiliarity may see the machine going unused. For those who haven’t, it may mean the investment is never made in the first place.   

In response to this challenge, many printer manufacturers and distributors now provide training, resources and support for educators to successfully integrate 3D printing into the curriculum.


3D printing in premium or heavier materials such as metals, composites and engineered plastics requires a large, sophisticated printer. These specialized machines are much more expensive and complicated to operate than desktop models. As such, they are currently only found in higher education institutions such as colleges, universities and industry-specific training centers.    

Primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools and increasingly, libraries and community makerspaces are typically restricted to entry-level 3D printers. Such machines only print in certain plastics, most often polylactic acid (PLA) and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS).

3D printing is connecting classrooms with the wider community

An endangered African penguin at Mystic Aquarium, Connecticut, was found to have a nonfunctional flexor tendon in her ankle. Much like an injury to a person’s Achilles heel, damage to a penguin’s flexor tendon leads to pain and difficulty in motion.

Once the injury was identified, the veterinary staff took action with a handmade boot to immobilize, protect and support the damaged foot. Yet, the animal care team knew that 3D printing would be more durable, less cumbersome and require less time than handcrafting the boot.

Mystic Aquarium took this idea to Mystic Middle School, which had recently acquired a 3D printer through ACT Group, a local partner of global 3D printing pioneer 3D Systems.

Working as a team, Mystic Aquarium, ACT Group and the students came together to design and 3D print a new boot for the small bird. With anatomical guidance from Mystic Aquarium’s veterinary staff and technical training from ACT Group, the students led the design and manufacturing process.

They started by scanning a cast of the penguin’s foot and then used software to customize the file with details such as treads, hinges and closures. Once satisfied with the design, it was 3D printed on 3D Systems’ multi-material ProJet 3D printer.

This printer enables flexible and rigid materials to be printed and blended simultaneously for custom strength and elasticity. The resulting boot achieved the intended effect in durability, weight and fit, enabling the penguin to walk and swim like the rest of her peers.


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