Educators Could Save $450,000 Yearly with Open-Source 3D Printing

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There remains little doubt that 3D printing enhances the quality and effectiveness of education, whether at the kindergarten or university level. The cost of printers and materials for filament-based 3D printing have fallen significantly over the last decade, while the quality, accessibility, and usability of 3D printing in education have all improved, aided most by open-source tools, files, and information.

Pythagorean Theorem learning aid. Image courtesy of MDPI Journal, Nov. 2020 and Michigan Technological University.

In a recent study published by the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology (MOST) Lab, researchers found that teachers (and even parents or communities) could save educators 86% on the cost of learning aids by using low-cost 3D printers (RepRap) to print open source designs, instead of directly purchasing commercially available learning aids (such as on Amazon) which are more expensive.

With several desktop 3D printers available on the market for under $200 that also produce parts of reasonable quality, the cost of the investment can easily be recouped in half a day of printing quality learning aids using open source design files from platforms such as myminifactory.com. In fact, even if schools were to invest in more expensive commercial 3D printers, it could be possible, as per the researchers, to recoup the investment in the first 100 days itself.

This approach also allows for decentralized availability and on-demand manufacturing of learning aids: anyone in the world with a 3D printer can access the designs and print them. For investors, the return on investment stands at more than 100% on average for investments in the development of open-source learning aids for education.

The study is co-authored by Dr. Joshua Pearce, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering, who is well known for his research and work in open-source hardware in particular, for 3D printing in education. One of his initiatives includes the Open-source Lab, which enables students and researchers to 3D print their own laboratory equipment or supplies, reducing costs, improving access and freeing research from the constraints of traditional laboratory equipment or laboratory supply. It also enables researchers to design and 3D print custom lab equipment – and share these online – thus encouraging open innovation as well.

Spinal column learning aid. Image courtesy of MDPI Journal, Nov. 2020 and Michigan Technological University.

In this study, learning aid designs were analyzed in detail for economic viability (accounting for 3D printing and assembly costs). 38 learning aids were considered by researchers for this study, and results showed that by 3D printing the open-source design for each learning aid, educators could save $45,000 on each of these learning aids, and could save a total of $1.7 million for educators globally.

Estimated economic savings over retail products. Image courtesy of MDPI Journal, Nov. 2020 and Michigan Technological University.

In selecting the learning aid designs, key subjects for middle to high school as available on MyMiniFactory were chosen: chemistry, biology, design, technology, physics, mathematics, geography, history, with two designs selected for each subcategory. The frequency of downloads (the average learning aid design used in this study was downloaded over 1,500 times) and usability for each design were also evaluated. Additionally, equivalent products on Amazon were found and used for comparison (as Amazon competes on cost, it provided a relevant competitive comparison). Five of the most representative models chosen for the study were a clock, a brain, a Pythagorean visual aid, a spinal cord, and a combustion engine.

Combustion Engine learning aid. Image courtesy of MDPI Journal, Nov. 2020 and Michigan Technological University.

The cost of materials and utilities in printing each of these five was measured, and compared with the equivalent commercial product on Amazon. In comparing the economic viability of 3D printed products versus retailed items, researchers accounted for the all the costs (including R&D, advertising, packaging, shipping, warranty, etc.) for a retail product, but also looked to see if and where each cost added value to the teacher or classroom, the end-users of these learning aid. For instance, advertising is a cost included in the price of the learning aid that is retailed by Amazon. Yet this cost does not add any value to the educator, even though they have to pay for it to obtain the product. With 3D printed, open-source learning aids, there is no such cost to be paid—only fabrication costs have to be accounted for, which directly add value to the educator.

What’s interesting is how the savings obtained by 3D printing the learning aid (compared to purchasing a consumer product via retail) correlate with the cost of ‘vitamins’, or any extra/additional material, used to make the learning aid. For aids such as the screw, made mostly from a single 3d printed material, the savings are as high as 99.92 percent! Yet, for aids such as the pendulum wave machine, where extra components or materials are used beyond the 3D printed part, the savings drop to 30.4 percent. Overall, in absolute terms, the average 3D printed learning aid cost $3.10 to make, and the equivalent consumer product cost nearly $30 to purchase.

Brain model learning aid. Image courtesy of MDPI Journal, Nov. 2020 and Michigan Technological University.

Such learning aids also introduce an element of invention or creation into learning, provide a hands-on approach accessible to all, and empower students or educators to develop their own tools for education. Such learning aids can also be quite sophisticated, such as ultrasound-based navigational support systems, or others used in advanced science classes (e.g., optomechanical systems, bioadhesion, etc.). These are already being used across a variety of educational areas, from medical education, anatomy, prosthetics, special education, history and cultural education to geoscience, engineering, STEM courses, sustainable development education, mechatronics, and even to construct robot hardware or 3D printer components.

Low-cost, open-source-based, distributed manufacturing not only improves and transforms learning effectiveness and flexibility, but also brings tremendous economic value to individual teachers and students globally. Just with the 38 learning aids considered in this study (which have been downloaded on average 1,500 times globally), educators could save $450,000 annually, with an average of $11,822 per learning aid per year. And what about other benefits, that become possible with 3D printers ? As the study states:

The opportunity to print objects now can give students something to look forward to when coming to school. They can become more interested in the STEM field. Additionally, students could design their own objects that can be made for classrooms or younger children to help proactive learners. In general, students that are first exposed to 3-D printers love to watch the printer work its magic and make objects. Young students ask questions about the printer, such as “How hot does it get to melt the plastic?” and “How does it know how to print what we want?”. Students are curious about the machine itself and would touch the print bed or the filament. 3-D printers (or even using them) could be used as prizes or awards for good student behavior or achievements. Finally, it could lead students who have already graduated to give back to the schools they grew up in following the open-source model. This equipment in the classroom gives the school a higher sense of technology. This may ultimately boost educational quality (e.g., ratings), attracting more students (e.g., funding). (Pearce, M Joshua, ‘The Economics of Classroom 3D printing of Open-Source Digital Designs of Learning Aids’,  MDPI Journal, November 2020)

Of course, challenges exist for educators to fully realize these savings, as school or institutional IT systems need to allow for reliable, secure access to open-source platforms and designs, and educators need training to effectively use 3D software and tools, and easily navigate through digital to physical platforms. And that’s where Joshua Pearce’s work in open-source education, as well as several other initiatives for open-source, 3D printing in education, are driving this much-needed transformation for educators and students.

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