3D printing technology in schools and libraries has the potential to transform the way we educate and learn
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, allows for the creation of three-dimensional objects by adding successive layers of materials via a digital file. In the private sector, engineers and designers have been using 3D printing for nearly 30 years but mostly in specialized industrial manufacturing. Today, mainly due to the decrease in cost, there’s a wide array of 3D printing applications. Large or small objects composed of complex, intricate parts and with nearly any material can be fabricated with 3D printers. The accessibility to consumers for these items is increasing as is the demand - eyeglass frames, chocolate, shoes, toys, iPhone cases, drones and guitars can all be made from 3D printers. As of September 2014, 3D printing moved one step closer to being an everyday feature: UPS announced that it’s set to roll out 3D printing services in 100 stores nationwide. And there are many unique recent inventions just on the horizon for use, such as pizza, prosthetics, bones, coral to restore damaged reefs and stem cells to replace animal testing for prescription drugs.
Onvia has a large database of procurement activity and spending plans from more than 80,000 agencies in the U.S. Because of the increased demand for 3D printing in the private sector we decided to research 3D printing technology trends in the public sector. It’s fairly well known that US Army plans to develop a way to produce guns using 3D printer technology. But there’s more happening at the federal level, for example, NASA is testing a zero gravity 3D printer aboard the International Space Station (ISS) for future in-space manufacturing of food, replacement parts and tools. And in June, the federally funded National Institute of Health launched the NIH 3D Print Exchange, a public website that enables users to share, download and edit 3D print files related to health and science.
As expected, the Onvia database revealed quite a bit of bid/RFP activity at the federal level of government. But according to Onvia’s Term Contract Center and Project Center, there is also increased activity over the last year in the SLED (State, Local and Education) market, particularly in education. Educational Technology and Mobile Learning posted an article on the importance of 3D printing in education that says:
3D printing seems to hold some promising and ground-breaking innovation that will definitely assist in the fulfillment of a productive educational experience.
Examples of current educational contracts and the bidding vendors include Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, Georgia. The district awarded a one-year term contract worth $97,356 to 3D Printer Technology to supply the school system with 3D printers. The bidders for this contract were 3D Printer Technology, CDW Government LLC, Fargo 3D Printing LLC, Learning Labs, Inc., Makerbot, Midwest Technology Products, Source Graphics, Staples Advantage and Technical Training Aids.
Cleveland Community College in North Carolina awarded a bid to Technical & Management Resources Inc. for 3D printers for $37,600. Georgia Institute of Technology in Georgia also awarded Technical & Management Resources Inc. with a bid worth $40,000 to provide a Stratasys Dimension SST Elite 3D Printer, associated products and training.
One more example of a typical 3D printer award that can be found in the Onvia database is Dallas County Community College District in Texas where RLC Teaching Systems, Inc. won a $36,700 award to provide a 3D printer to be used by students in engineering, technology and manufacturing courses.
Looking to the future, Onvia’s Spending Forecast Center revealed hundreds of proposed and adopted capital improvement plans, budgets and programs that include the purchase of 3D printers. Over half are for education, mainly for elementary and secondary school districts.
It appears a general consensus is forming in education that students can benefit greatly from newer technologies. One example is the Enfield Public School District in Connecticut. The 2014-2015 Superintendent’s Budget Proposal states that, “The Technology Education department has adopted several new technologies in the last few years including: CNC plasma cutters, CNC Mills, CNC vinyl cutters, and 3D printers in our courses. These technologies allow students to take advantage of modern manufacturing technologies to produce work that was impossible just a few years ago. Using the technology helps students develop complex spatial relation skills and requires students to apply: math, science, and computer technology skills to develop their projects. By learning to use these technologies students are better prepared to compete in a post-secondary educational programs, careers, or personal artistic and creative pursuits.” In this case, the Enfield 2014-2015 Budget Proposal includes an increase in the equipment expenditure to provide for the purchase of additional 3D printing technology for the JFK Middle School in the district.
We found multiple mentions of 3D printers in plans and budgets for state and city agencies as well. State agencies are typically planning buys for state-run schools such as technical colleges. But the majority of mentions are at the city level of government and these printers are intended for use in libraries. As Nicole Blake Johnson reports in StateTech, 3D printing is part of how technology is reinventing the public library experience. Johnson says, “If you talk to the visionaries who are creating the libraries of the future, you’ll hear about 3D printing and scanning; makerspaces; laser cutters; badging systems; resources for entrepreneurs, students and job seekers; and a plethora of technology-based classes for novice and advanced learners.”
As part of a “Quality of Life” improvement plan in the 2015 Five Year Capital Improvement Plan, the City of Billings in Montana is looking to “create and manage a community “Makerspace,” an innovative spot that introduces library patrons to tools, like 3D printers and makerbots, not normally found in the library and offers patrons the opportunity to explore their interest, use new tools, and develop creative project.”
Additional examples for libraries and digital makerspaces are the City of Denton in Texas and City of University City in Missouri. The City of Denton will soon put into place a makerspace program with a 3D printer and Adobe Software package for the North Branch Library. The (now adopted) 2013-2014 Proposed Annual Program of Services says, “This space is recommended to provide programming enhancements in the Library and address the City Council suggestion for creating a “Collaborative Co‐Working Space” for entrepreneurs. The City of University City’s 2015 proposed budget says the public library “strives to achieve its vision and its goals with a philosophy that embraces change and supports superior service” and recommends the installation of a 3D printer as part of a fabrication makerspace at the library.
The opportunities in 3D printing extend beyond manufacturers and distributors of 3D printers. Consultation, training and maintenance are involved as is software, design tools, scanners and finishing machines. Also interesting to note is some agencies plan to have students build and use their own dedicated 3D printers, using open-source software to program them, and then design and create products. This provides another type of opportunity for IT software vendors looking at the 3D technology market. An example of this can be found in the California’s Turlock Unified School District 2014-2017 Technology Plan.
For agencies that cannot purchase 3D printers directly, other options exist, such as 3D printing services like 3D Hubs. These cloud-based services could offer a cost-effective approach for many agencies to incorporate 3D printing into their plans without major upfront investments.
Onvia’s database has evidence of a growing trend in 3D technology opportunities with increased state, local and education activity happening over the next few years as educational institutions and local municipalities look to embrace this new technology to teach, educate and improve quality of life for their local communities.