Where Does Additive Manufacturing Fit in the Education Arena?

Additive Manufacturing (AM) offers a variety of benefits to universities, encouraging project-based learning and allowing students to experiment with test models or prototypes. Yet, many universities are hesitant to enter the metal AM market due to safety, skill and cost concerns.

AM systems have been used for years in educational facilities to help boost student engagement. Universities can use AM to enhance design creativity, experiment with prototypes and rapidly produce useful assets, providing students with access to technologies that can help them in their future careers. However, universities and other tertiary education facilities often struggle to enter the metal 3D printing space, so instead opt for a machine that works with plastic materials.

Barriers to investment

When speaking to universities that are considering investing in metal AM systems, the concerns we often hear are around cost, safety and knowledge.

While high investment and technology complexity can prevent quick entry into metal 3D printing, there are businesses that offer a slightly lower entry cost or payment plans based on an organization’s financial requirements. That way, students get rapid access to AM technology without adding as much worry to department finances. AM systems also benefit the university as a whole and do not need to be incorporated into one department’s curriculum. Metal 3D printing is used in a wide variety of sectors, so universities should encourage all students to learn how to use the machine.

AM has been around for years in industry, yet there is limited knowledge shared, particularly in terms of its capabilities in education, so it’s important that universities work with their suppliers to understand the machine’s full capabilities. Additive manufacturing machine suppliers can offer support and guidance from the start, helping create a harmonized system chain. AM systems are also becoming more user friendly, making it easier for students and lecturers alike to quickly pick up the skills needed to create innovative prototypes.

The core concern often heard when using metal AM systems is safety around powder handling. Most of the current systems available struggle with powder handling, both with storage and general use due to the hazards associated with reactive powders. However, newer technologies provide users with a safe and easy way to take printed parts out of the machine and re-sieve any remaining powder to be reused, avoiding any contact with the user.

For example, some systems use sealed material cartridges that ensure safe and clean production. These systems also require minimal personal protective equipment (PPE) for the students, simply gloves and a mask. This is because materials are always contained in their seal cartridges with a separate powder recovery and re-sieving system, so only readily printed parts come out of the machine.

Using AM in education

As the technology becomes more advanced, universities that adopt additive manufacturing will also have access to a range of additional software installations that can be used for additional experimentation.

This is particularly useful for research, because students can experiment with various powder materials without using the cartridge system, enabling them to perfect the design. The added flexibility expands the application possibilities, allowing departments to easily change material powders without taking the time to make material changes to the entire system. Students can also experiment with different parameters to determine which works best for their needs.

Why metal AM?

In my experience, there are two key applications in education facilities that often use AM technologies. Research and development is highly popular with AM as many students like that they can go from idea to CAD file in the same day. This is particularly useful for science and engineering courses, where they could create various prototypes for their assignments.

However we’ve also seen interest from jewellery and fashion course coordinators. It’s common for these departments to use AM to create general casting or metal parts for accessories that require fine detail and high accuracy.

One school where AM investment was particularly successful was at Chesterfield College, who invested in six 3D printers for a dedicated on-campus AM facility. Students from all courses could access these systems to support their design projects and provide them with manufacturing knowledge for the future.

Colin Cater is a metal specialist at Tri-Tech 3D.