3D Printing Educator Spotlight On: Joshua Pearce, PhD, Associate Professor, Michigan Tech

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As the global population continues to expand massively, with an estimated 7.5 billion people alive today, sustainability is becoming an ever-more-pressing concern. It takes a lot of energy to support a large and growing population, especially with the living standards seen in the 21st century. In the US, where capitalism looms large, affordability poses another issue as many goods and services carry with them a hefty price tag. At the convergence of a few major areas looking toward the future of sustainability is Dr. Joshua M. Pearce, who has engaged in extensive work with 3D printing, solar power, and open source research as he has headed thorough studies examining these areas and working to educate students and industry alike. Dr. Pearce, Associate Professor, Materials Science & Engineering and Electrical & Computer Engineering, works at Michigan Technological University (Michigan Tech) and is a strong figure standing at the crossroads of 3D printing and education.

Most recently, Dr. Pearce shared with us his thoughts on a study with 3D design repository MyMiniFactory to discover how 3D printing is set to disrupt the toys and games industry, with findings indicating a potential $60 million impact and room for significant growth. He has also recently examined the impact of at-home 3D printing on sales of consumer goods, and looked closely at 3D printing materials properties, including significant work with recycled materials. Dr. Pearce’s classes have built their own RepRap 3D printers, while his research team has also been making great headway in working on solar-powered 3D printers; the open source movement plays strongly into the work he does, and he has argued against too much IP protection in 3D printing while developing open source 3D printing software and quantifying the value of open source hardware.

The professor is undoubtedly busy as his prolific projects show (as does his Wikipedia entry); we appreciate his taking the time to talk to us as we continue to focus on the importance of those working to advance the place of education in the 3D printing world.

Solar powered 3D printer [Image: Appropedia]

Please tell us about your background and how you came to teach at Michigan Tech.

“My first academic job had me developing the first Sustainability program in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education and then after I met my beautiful Canadian wife and we moved to Canada, I helped develop their Applied Sustainability graduate engineering program at Queens University. Then we started trying to solve the ‘2 body problem’ with good jobs for both of us and did a North America wide search for a university town with a hospital. Michigan Tech was hiring a cluster of renewable energy profs and the local hospital was advertising for an orthopedic surgeon – so we ended up here, which is about as close to Canada as you can get being in the middle of Lake Superior. Now I am a Professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering where I run the Open Sustainability Technology Research Group.”

What drew your academic interest to sustainable technologies? What are your primary areas of technical research?

Lecture on solar photovoltaic powered RepRap

“I had always been interested in the environment – but when deciding on what to research for graduate school I tried to find the largest problem — which in my opinion was energy – as a clean, cheap abundant form of energy would solve a lot of our other problems. I thought (and still think) solar photovoltaic technology, which turns sunlight directly into electricity, was our best shot at having a high-tech society without destroying the planet. My training was in physics, chemistry and materials engineering – all focused on making solar cells better.”

When did you first become interested in 3D printing?

“I had made a Queen’s student project attempting to solar power OLPC laptops for children in the developing world. For the first time, I had access to a rapid prototyper we could use! My initial excitement wore off pretty quick when the plastic prototype cost more than all the electronics and solar parts and almost as much as the laptop. I started looking around for a more cost effective solution. That is when I found the RepRap project and immediately fell in love. A low-cost open source 3D printer than can make itself and anything you can think of — as an engineer you have to love that! The early ones were a bit trying and at the time filament costs were the bottleneck so we started in on the recyclebot that turns waste plastic into 3D printing filament and began helping the global effort to push 3D printing functionality forward.”

How did you decide to include 3D printing in your work at Michigan Tech?

“When I moved to Michigan Tech I had to leave behind more than a million dollars of equipment in Canada. That hurt. But I brought a RepRap I had built at home and ordered a bunch more parts to jump into 3D printing with both feet: developing them (e.g. metal welding printers, plastic sheet welders, wax printers for microfluidics) or using them to prototype research projects (e.g. solar racking) and then the real awesomeness began when I started using them to demolish the cost of scientific equipment to build my lab back up. Now I can say we really do have an open source lab, where the majority of the equipment we made ourselves for pennies on the dollar. For example, we recently recycled one of the first generation LulzBots into an automated – mapping open source four point probe. We use it to test thin semiconductor and conducting films for solar cells. Our low-cost device allows us to keep up with huge companies that paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for their automated systems.”

How does the open source ethos contribute to your research involving 3D printing?

Laser welding plastic sheet 3DP for heat exchangers [Image: Appropedia]

“The ability to freely share digital designs and decrease the cost of anything to the raw materials (which 3D printers provide) renders traditional ideas about intellectual property obsolete. Just as Adrian Bowyer observed it doesn’t make sense to patent a 3-D printer that can print itself (because you would only ever sell one) the case to weaken or even eliminate the patent system is now very strong. Personally I want my research to benefit as many people as possible and I think lateral scaling where anyone can freely use anything that my research group has done is far more effective than trying to exclusively commercialize any of it. 3-D printers make that all possible.”

What types of reactions did your students have when you first introduced 3D printing to your syllabus?

“The Open Source 3-D Printing course was centered on the idea that you would build a 3D printer from scratch and then use it for progressively more sophisticated design projects. The students loved it – the course was overbooked immediately and is honestly enormously fun to teach.”

How do students react now, a few years later?

“They still love it and there is still far more sign ups than can fit into the room. Next year, I am hoping to make an online MOOC version to accommodate the interest, which was impossible before because it was too hard to organize the builds. Now the building of a RepRap 3D printer has become relatively easy and each year I make that part of it a smaller and smaller fraction of the grade. On the other hand the student projects are becoming more and more sophisticated and awe inspiring!”

What has surprised you most in the studies you have led regarding cost benefits of consumer 3D printing?

“From our work on scientific equipment (where there are huge markups) I knew 3D printers could save money – but I was shocked how 3D printers could cut costs of mass produced things like shower curtain rings and toys. They shouldn’t be able to do that so well because we know the cost of filament is egregiously marked up….but yet they do. This simply means our current economic system is horrendously inefficient and individuals can profit/save substantially from this by investing in a 3D printer to print products for themselves.”

How do you feel your students’ experiences with 3D printers on campus will help to prepare them for their careers?

$1200 metal 3D printer [Image: Appropedia]

“A dwindling number of my colleagues think 3D printing is a fad. These few holdouts are just wrong. As your readers know 3D printing is taking over everything. A recent report from data company Wanted Analytics found that in one month 35 percent of engineering job listings from a variety of fields, including biomedical, software, and transportation industries, required applicants familiar with 3D printing – and I am confident that number will only grow with time. Many 3D printer ‘users’ don’t really understand their machines – my students come out knowing how to strip a printer down to its base components, then fix, adapt, upgrade or tweak them to get superior performance. Everything we do is open source so they can take it with them to any business (or home) with no licensing costs. Companies are scooping my students up like hotcakes.”

Do you have any advice for educators looking to incorporate 3D printers in their classrooms?

“To get started feel free to use/copy/modify any part (or all) or my Open Source 3-D Printing course or the coming MOOC.

Please keep your classroom work open. Encourage your students to share their designs (STL and source) on free repositories like YouMagine, MyMiniFactory, the NIH 3D Print Exchange, etc. This gives anything you do in the classroom a life that could continue to impact the world far into the future, which is very motivating for students. Encourage them to design real and useful products rather than do simple ‘book exercises’. Give them some freedom and they will impress you.

On the other hand, training students how to use expensive proprietary CAD software they may not have access to in their future careers is a waste of time – even if a company donated the software to your school. Knowledge of OpenSCAD, FreeCAD, and Blender will all pay dividends to your students in the future even if they work at a company that exclusively uses a proprietary software chain. The same goes for hardware – if you can’t fix it you don’t own it. Using RepRaps or commercial open hardware like LulzBots, Prusas, Ultimakers, etc. will keep costs down while enabling your students to gain a deeper understanding of 3D printing.”

3D printing can help to bring production to areas that can best benefit from it, and through the use of solar power and recycled materials, costs drop in terms of both dollars and energy expenditure. As we’ve seen, this opens up great potential for additive manufacturing to operate in the field, in remote locales, in disaster zones, and more — as well as in urban or suburban areas. Educating future generations on the technology greatly expands the potential for its ongoing growth — and as Dr. Pearce has seen through his students’ job prospects, this education is indeed much-needed as advanced manufacturing is faced with a skills gap at present. Educational initiatives at institutes like Michigan Tech are necessary for 3D printing to further take root and, like students, mature and reach its full potential.

Hearing directly from Dr. Pearce allows us a glimpse into the educational sector of 3D printing that we greatly value. Individuals driven to dive into research and, most importantly, to share their findings and analysis are those who are directly helping to propel 3D printing into the future.

Share your thoughts in the Joshua Pearce forum at

[All photos provided courtesy Joshua Pearce]


If you are interested in sharing your story, or know an educator we should get in touch with, please reach out any time. Send us an email or connect on Twitter. We’re looking forward to sharing your stories. Find all the features in this series here.


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