How exactly does 3D printing work?

Written by Mrs. Amy Harmon Krtanjek

3D printers are a staple in the robotics lab, as they provide a means to custom fabricate components quickly and inexpensively. In the classroom, students hone their design and spatial relations skills to create objects for function and art.

For many, a hallmark project of elementary school was weaving, accomplished on a loom crafted from cardboard and string, with a design coming to life line-by-line. This is similar to how a 3D printer works. The printer works by feeding plastic filament through an extruder that controls the flow of material, while motors move the head back and forth in the X-Y plane, creating a layer that stacks up to create the three-dimensional object designed or scanned into software. The process is controlled by the translation of computer-designed files into “gcode” that the printer uses to determine the places in space, to feed filament and move, to build the object from the base plate up.

This time-lapse shows printing of a famous sculpture that was scanned to translate the 3D shape into a printable code.

The original design can be found here.

In the robotics lab, the GearHounds use the printer to quickly prototype parts to test out ideas, and build essential components on the robot. Our Ribbon-Cutting Robot benefitted from several 3D printed parts, holding the battery, the control system and providing the pulley system that enabled the scissors to lift to the height required. In our current competition build, 3D printing is being used weekly to create pieces of the mechanisms that will enable the robot to carry out the strategy for competition.

YCDS selected the Ultimaker 2 printers, with one for the robotics lab and one for the digital art lab. These printers provide an easy interface and range of capabilities that is consistent with student use. The printers also have the capability to expand to dual-head extrusion offering broader design capability as our students advance their skills.

Just like paint brushes in art, the 3D printer provides students with a means for expressing their ideas and gaining practice in skills essential for critical thinking and our 21st century world.