Consider four simple questions…
The ultimate fundraiser. The ultimate hands-on project. Entrepreneurship in the class. STEAM brought to life. There’s a reason schools are bringing maker tools into the classroom in record numbers, and your kids deserve the tool that’s right for them.
There are two technologies at the heart of the making revolution, and it can be hard to decide which is best for your library or other makerspace. With prices starting at $2,500, it’s like the “Apple or PC” decision from the start of the personal computer revolution.
If you’re not already thinking about bringing 3D or laser technology into your school's makerspace, now’s the time to start. These four questions will help you decide what you need for your curriculum: a traditional 3D printer or a desktop laser?
Before those questions, though, it helps to be familiar with how each one works.
What’s a traditional 3D printer, and how does it work?
Traditional 3D printers are produced by companies including Makerbot, Prusa, and Ultimaker. Most of them use a tiny plastic extruder to build up an object one layer at a time. This is called “additive manufacturing,” since material is added to create the final product.
(Above) A Flashforge Finder 3D printer building a vase out of plastic.
What’s a desktop laser, and how does it work?
Desktop lasers (also called laser cutter/engravers) are produced by companies including Epilog, Glowforge, and Trotec. They use a focused beam of light to cut and engrave materials. This is called “subtractive manufacturing,” since material is removed to create the final product.
(Above) Glowforge Basic printing a vase out of Walnut plywood at 50x speed.
Traditional 3D printers and laser cutter/engravers have different tradeoffs. To find what your class needs most, consider these four questions.
1) What materials do you want to use?
Desktop 3D printers print in plastic, most commonly PLA or ABS. Most 3D printers print one color at a time. To use a different color, you’ll choose your printer’s filament unload option, clear the hot end, and then choose the load filament option to install the new color.
Lasers print with a variety of materials including wood, cloth, paper, leather, acrylic, cardboard, and food. You can also engrave metals, stone, glass, and some consumer electronics devices like laptops and tablets. To use multiple materials, each one is placed in the laser and printed. The final product is then assembled from the materials.
(Above) Examples of creations made with a laser cutter/engraver.
2) How much time does your class have?
Traditional 3D printers must move the head through the entire volume of the object to deposit all of the plastic. Higher quality prints extrude the plastic more slowly and take longer. For example, the vase pictured below took 14 hours to print on a Makerbot Replicator+.
With a laser, cutting goes quickly as the laser only moves around the edge of the cut lines. Engraving images takes longer, as it goes back and forth over the surface. For comparison, it took 50 minutes on a Glowforge Basic to print the vase below.
(Above) The vase on the left side of each image was made using a Glowforge Basic desktop laser. The vase on the right side of each image was made using a MakerBot 3D printer.
3) What design tools are available to your students?
Both lasers and 3D printers let you print designs you find online, but the joy of owning one of these tools comes from letting students create things on their own. That can be easy or difficult, depending on what skills and technology you would like to bring to the classroom.
3D printers use volumetric files such as STL and OBJ. To create these, your students will need to use CAD software like SketchUp, Fusion 360, Blender, or TinkerCAD.
(Above) High-resolution 3D printed object modeled in SolidWorks. “Miniature Queen Anne Chair – Replicator 2 – 3D-printed at 0,1 mm-layer v01“ by Creative Tools is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Lasers use vector and image formats like JPG and PDF. Most software can create these files, including Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, and Adobe Photoshop. It’s also easy to use software like Microsoft Office or Google Docs, or any other software that saves photos or PDFs. Lasers can also use designs from CAD software.
(Above) Laser-engraved photo edited in Microsoft Paint.
Keep compatibility in mind too – some machines will work from a web browser on a Mac, PC, Chromebook, iPad, and more. Other machines require you to use certain versions of Microsoft Windows.
4) What are you most excited about your students making?
3D printers can create almost any shape, but the surface is always rough plastic.
This is perfect for some uses, like:
- Prototyping something that will be made by injection molding, casting, or milling
- Creating functional demonstration projects where function is more important than durability or appearance, like a replacement plastic part
- Printing 3D scans of objects made with a phone or downloaded online
These all take advantage of 3D printers’ biggest advantage: complex 3D shapes.
Some 3D printer projects that just can’t be done on a laser cutter/engraver:
- Involute spline gears
- Vases with complex curves
- 3D printing something from a 3D scan
To see some examples of what 3D printer owners are doing, check out the #makerbot hashtag on Instagram.
Lasers can create almost any shape in two dimensions, and can carve many shapes in three dimensions. Larger 3D projects are usually assembled from laser-cut and engraved pieces. This is perfect for uses like:
- Creating parts for science projects, like gears, ramps, and machines
- Creating professional signs and decoration
- Creating useful items with class or school logos, like wallets, coasters, lamps, and jewelry
Some examples of laser projects that can’t be done on a 3D printer:
- Hardwood furniture
- Leather purses
- Acrylic laptop stands
To see some examples of what desktop laser owners are doing, check out the #glowforge hashtag on Instagram.
Tools in the classroom can be transformative. They enable students to bring their ideas into the world, express their creativity, and create joy, while teaching invaluable skills for their future. Whatever tools you decide to bring into your school, your students are going to make amazing things!