Saturday, March 3, 2018

Student Projects using the 3D Printer

3D Printed character and photo by Jordan Miller
This winter, I flipped my hand-building class, adjusted the assignments, and added the requirement that all the students use our new 3D clay printer for one project.

The results have been pretty exciting,  and even though most students only printed one or two pieces during the quarter, we all got some experience with the printer and with the software. I didn't use the software as much as the students did, but I did get to use the printer many, many times this quarter. 

student print

Having the students bring their files ready to print, and monitor the printer while it was printing allowed us to use class time more efficiently and get everyone some experience with both the printer and troubleshooting. I am looking forward, next quarter, to spending some time working through the entire process for myself, but this quarter gave me a better foundation on which to build next quarter and helped me be aware of what students are likely to need help with.

3D printed bee planter and photo by Cigdem Collins

The assignment this quarter required the students to use the printer and software, but didn't impose a lot of extra restrictions on their project. They were told to use Tinkercad, though later I suggested they could use Blender or Fusion 360 and one student did use the latter.

3D printed bee planter and photo by Cigdem Collins

To prepare for their printer time, the students were told to watch a short playlist of videos about 3D clay printing and Tinkercad and were then sent out to try the software. I told the students they should try the software but if they got really frustrated, they could come to class with just a simple shape ready to print. (I had tested Tinkercad with a 9-year-old, so I knew that my adult students should at least be able to make a simple shape even if they weren't very computer savvy.) I also told them they could print several simple shapes, the combine them using hand-building techniques to make a more complex form.

3D printed bee planter (back) and photo by Cigdem Collins

Most students were able to make forms of varying complexity using Tinkercad. They combined simple geometric shapes together to make several anthropomorphic vessels, a bunny, a pokemon, vases, and a tombstone. Once I've got more confidence in the other software, Tinkercad may not our best option, but for getting started it worked just fine. I ran into some compatibility issues with Fusion360 on my Mac and for students using Chromebooks which muted my enthusiasm for adopting this software.

3D Printed character and photo by Jordan Miller

Throughout the project time, I scheduled printing days for each student in the class. Since there was space for 16 students in the class and preparing and printing one piece sometimes takes an entire class period, I knew that I couldn't have the students all do the 3D printer project at the same time. I divided the class into four groups and each group was assigned about a week on the printer. During the time one group was scheduled on the printer, other groups were making projects using the extruders and the slab roller, both of which can only be used by one or two students at a time. Spacing out the projects like this reduced the amount of time students were waiting to access the equipment. Because I flipped the classes this quarter, each group had a different online demonstration playlist each week to prepare for class and I didn't have to spend class time introducing how to use the equipment.

3D Printed Headstone and photo by Autumn Nugent 

If the class had been full, each student would have one guaranteed day during class to print. As it turned out, I did not have a full class, so each student had a little bit more time and flexibility. It was fortuitous that we had the extra flexibility, because we needed that extra time. Most students needed more than one work day to print, either because they made changes to the print or, more often, because the printer behaved strangely. Some students were not prepared on their scheduled printing day and some wanted to reprint the initial form at a different size or because the first one dried too quickly.

3D Print and photo by Chelsea Blodgett

If I took a guess, I would say that at least half of the time we started to print, something went wrong with the printer. Either the speed or the size wasn't what we expected or the machine simply wouldn't move and had to be restarted. Several times we'd select one file, but another would begin to print. Usually the solution is simply to turn off the machine and start again, which doesn't seem so bad, except that every time we stop the machine, the whole tube apparatus moves back to the starting position at the top and has to move slowly to the bottom for a new print.

The most time consuming problem with the printer was when the clay was too dry. The class that was using the printer met every other day, so we wouldn't always go through an entire filled tube of clay in a day or two. Sometimes we'd use some of a tube on a Friday and then leave it over the weekend. We could tell that the clay was too dry when it began making terrible sounds (like a dying cow, my students say) or when the speed of the extrusion (the rate at which the clay comes out) changed mid-print (often accompanied by the dying cow sound). To swap out a printer tube, we need to run a retract program, take down the tube, unscrew 18 bolts with an Allen wrench, unscrew the shaft (the part that pushes the extruder), fill the tube (although we now have a second tube and a second set of half of those bolts), replace the bolts, reattach the tube, reset the height, and run a prime program. Needless to say, this isn't the most exciting part of the process and it eats away at a two-hour class time alarmingly quickly.

3D Printed Headstone, hand-built bird, and photo by Autumn Nugent 

Another nice thing about the structure of the class is that students were able to learn from each other. The first students who used Tinkercad and the printer learned enough about the printer to help the students who printed later. It was great for me because once students knew the machine well enough, they could help each other if I wasn't around or if I was helping someone else.

3D Print and photo by Chelsea Blodgett
Early on in the process of designing and printing shapes, students learned that some shapes won't print. Most of the students who did their project late in the quarter learned this by watching their classmates and didn't waste time making the same sorts of mistakes. The printer extrudes a continues line of clay while it moves around the shape. If the form a student wants to print has a flat top or a curve that is too steep, the shape won't be able to support itself. Most of the time students solved this problem by either ending the print with an open top or by building something by hand in place of the part that wouldn't print. Jordan and Nadene attached hand-built heads to printed bodies Autumn reinforced her walls with rolled and printed sections, and Chelsea added coil and slab reinforcements and additions.

Student work after printing

Another solution was to print the piece in pieces. This week a student printed a form with a lid. She printed the lid upside down with the knob printed inside the lid. She then cut the knob off and reattached it on the other side. I thought this was a nice solution, Unfortunately, the flat slab on which she printed the rim edge and the knob of the lid was quite thin and cracked as it dried.

3D Printed character and photo by Jordan Miller
Sometimes the prints come out fairly thick and have to be altered to avoid the risk of damage during firing. Some students simply trimmed away sections after printing, but one elegant solution was to use a rib inside the wet print to stretch the clay walls. Humberto did this with a vase that he printed but didn't design. The walls were thick enough and wet enough to easily accept the stretching without damage.

3D Printed form altered by Humberto Urrutia-Jr
Interestingly, most of the students also decided to smooth out the printer lines. This surprised me for two reasons. First, because much of the 3D printed work I've seen at shows and online leaves the lines visible and prominent. Second, because smoothing the lines takes a little more work. The end result of the smoothed lines is that we can't always tell that the piece was printed. In fact, one of my students referred to the printer as a "mechanical extruder" (it does, in fact, extrude clay and though it is computerized, it is also, like the other ones in the studio, mechanical).

Interior of bunny by Nadene Orlando-Urlacher
When I wrote the equipment request for the 3D printer in the spring last year, I indicated that one of the goals of having the machine was that this technology is so new that our students can be innovators and trailblazers with it. The goal was for them to surprise me with the ways in which they utilized the printer. This one class included students using the printer in a variety of ways, all of which I find really exciting and filled with potential.

3D Printed Bunny by Nadene Orlando-Urlacher
Jordan, used the printer, much like I've seen resin printers at Yakima Maker Space used, to make a figurine. Autumn printed two forms on their side and later combined them and turned them on end to make a form that couldn't have been printed vertically. Nadene's bunny is almost unrecognizable as a printed form until you look inside for the printer lines, and Cigdem's bee is a form that would be really difficult to make using techniques other than printing or maybe casting. Humberto's forms could probably be made with coil-building or wheel throwing techniques, but he left the lines visible and created a visual contrast by decorating the bottom edge with a contrasting pattern. A student in another class combined wheel throwing and printing techniques (but I didn't get a picture of her work yet).

3D Printed work by Humberto Urrutia-Jr. The work on the left was altered from a found object, the two on the right were made in Fusion360.
The new flipped structure of the hand-building class and the staggering of each student's printer time combined to make some really interesting work. I'm looking forward to teaching this class again (alas, I do not teach it in the spring). I plan to spend some time this spring preparing for that class, giving myself some more practice, working through some glitches with the printer, and preparing some videos to support a more effective flip of that section of the class. Next time I teach the class, I might even direct the students to this post so they can see what their peers were able to do with the technology.

3D Print and photo by Chelsea Blodgett

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