Veronica Spencer
Engineer, Designer, and Maker


3D Printing in Engineering Curriculum: Work Lazier, Not Smarter

Becoming a maker is one of the things that got me excited about my engineering education and steered me into this direction of product design. As a result, I firmly champion the Maker Movement, and everything it stands for. I will likely continue aggressively proselytizing making, makerspaces, and hands-on education until someone pries my soldering iron and my multi-tool from my cold, dead hands. Making is an empowering educational experience, and I hope that anyone who gets the opportunity can explore my very favorite hobby.

That being said, 3D printing is the bane of my existence. From my many varied positions as a design and prototyping advisor at Georgia Tech, I've seen firsthand that the Maker Community's biggest buzzword doesn't make nearly the kind of difference in engineering education that everyone seems to think it does. 

Unlimited access to 3D printing and filament doesn't guarantee better engineers or designers, in much the same way that unlimited access to a well-stocked kitchen doesn't make you an expert chef. Much like the chef, student engineers need to have some training or instruction to set them on the right path of design. This knowledge is what allows students to read and interpret their recipes. They also need to be cognizant of the resources at their disposal, and how those resources fit into their design/recipe. There is no shortcut for competency.

Imagine this: Your chef friend wants to make a cake. He has had cake before, and he has heard that you can make it yourself. He knows that there are eggs in cakes, but beyond that he knows nothing. So, confident in his problem solving abilities, he calculates the volume of the size of the cake he wants to make, and he determines that it will take 30 eggs to make the size of cake he wants. He puts 30 eggs in a pan, and then sticks it in the oven.

When the eggs come out of the oven, he is surprised that it is not cake. He redoes his calculations and comes to the conclusion that everything would have been fine if he had just included 5 more eggs. So he dumps 35 eggs in the same pan, and sticks it back in the same oven. When the eggs come out of the oven, and they are still not cake, your friend gets mad, decides that the oven is broken, and then storms out.

Or, imagine this: Your friend needs a measuring cup, but all of his are dirty in the sink. He could wash them, but he decides to make one instead. After all, he knows that he needs it to measure a specific amount RIGHT NOW, and washing dishes is gross. Given his success with eggs in his previous cake incident, he decides to make it out of eggs. The egg-measuring cup is inaccurate, not watertight, and can only be used once. It takes him 45 minutes to wrangle, bake, and shape the eggs into this inferior measuring cup. It would have taken him 5 minutes to wash his existing measuring cups.

Finally, imagine this: Your friend shares his magical kitchen with other novice chefs. One day, he decides to explore his trusty egg medium by making poached eggs of different shapes and sizes in the kitchen's oven. His friends are making a souffle for a very important dinner, and are surprised to find that the oven is full of eggs. Instead of agreeing to share the oven with the souffle makers, your friend is indignant that someone is trying to convince him to not take full advantage of the free resources of the magical kitchen. He knows that collecting one of every type of egg is much, much more important than the extremely important, once-in-a-lifetime dinner that his friends are preparing for.

If you thought that any of these scenarios were ridiculous and could never happen, then you'd be surprised to learn that I have witnessed the 3D printing counterpart to all of these situations - sadly, more than once.

In scenario 1, I have seen students assume that 3D printing is the only way to make something that they want. Instead of utilizing a combination of prototyping methods - including waterjetting, laser cutting, woodworking (all of which are free at our space) - the student 3D prints an alternative design that fails to perform. Usually, the failure is due to strength of the 3D print (and the stress distribution across the poorly designed part). Instead of revisiting the fundamental flaws of their design with people who are trying to teach them better shop etiquette, they insist that all of their problems would disappear if they could just print the part again using more infill.

In scenario 2, I have seen students actively avoid going to the hardware store to buy something that already exists, like a metal shaft, hinges, gears, brackets... you name it. Instead, students insist that 3D printing will save them time, money, and effort. Here's the thing, though: metal shafts, hinges, gears, and brackets are usually metal for a reason. More often than not, students trade an hour (or more) of 3D printer time for a part that fails after 1 use.

In scenario 3, I have personally, reliably had to dissuade people printing off Pokemon or other collectible item files that they have downloaded off of sites like Thingiverse. These students get irritated or even angry when they are discouraged from using multiple printers at a time to make desk toys, when other students are desperately preparing for the Capstone Expo, a demo day of their start-up, or other important deadlines.

If you were to encounter a chef continually making such silly mistakes, chances are that you'd take a look at his training and brainstorm ways to better prepare and teach him to use the resources you've made available. I doubt that you'd reach the conclusion that he just needs more eggs and more kitchen space, and that the problem will go away on its own.

Within the world of engineering design curriculum (at least at Georgia Tech), we DO have those interventions and training in place for equipment that is considered dangerous - like the woodshop, laser cutter, and waterjet. Because of the widespread perception of 3D printing to be a plug-and-play, 100% safe, fail-proof prototyping method, we see a lot of students with no prior preparation on the pros and cons of additive manufacturing. Unfair expectations of professors transfer unfair expectations to students, who then turn to the easiest solution. When students present their less-than-stellar results, professors ask for an increase in our shop's capabilities and resources, which simply perpetuates the cycle.

To be quite honest, I'm not sure what we can do to significantly improve this blind reliance on 3D printers in modern engineering education. All I know is that I'm here with my Prototyping Instructor colleagues trying to keep our student chefs from wasting all of our eggs. Unless something on the curriculum changes, we are powerless to prevent this recipe for disaster.