Today’s guest blog comes to us from Kyle Martin of Florida Polytechnic University.

Cars, fighter jets, human stem cells – all made possible with a 3D printer? They’re just a few ways that 3D printing is already leaving its mark on different industries such as automotive, aerospace, and health care.

Created by Charles Hull in 1984 as a learning tool to test engineering designs, 3D printers had, up until a decade ago, been used primarily in prototyping in industrial settings.

Today, the technology has reached a new level of maturity and is moving beyond the limitations of its prototyping roots. As 3D printers gain popularity, they also become critical learning devices in the classroom, and through discounted 3D printing services like Shapeways EDU program. Useful for numerous STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, 3D printers transform ideas in a reality. Here’s how:

3D Printers and STEM Education Unite

Because 3D printers allow STEM students to make their ideas tangible, they benefit from a new level of engagement and applied learning. Instead of looking at ideas in two dimensions, students can look at all angles of their design to determine what works and what doesn’t. With 3D printers now established in many top engineering colleges, students are able to create, build and learn from their mistakes in a faster, more revolutionized way.

The ability to see virtually any design in 3D creates endless possibilities in the classroom. Not only are students learning concepts from a book, but also bringing these ideas to life by visualizing them in 3D. One such example: Medical students can study human ear diagrams in a textbook, and then examine a life-size replica in their own hands for a more hands-on perspective.

Our industry needs more adaptive problem solvers who can quickly identify a problem and then design new, innovative solutions for it. By using a 3D printer in the classroom, students can quickly sharpen these necessary problem-solving skills, evaluate their product and identify failure points. This printing technology has been known as “rapid prototyping” because it cuts the amount of time between design and prototype to days, sometimes even hours, depending on the project. Reinforcing this technology is critical in preparing our students for STEM careers.

3D Printing and Industry Applications

Using 3D printing technology in applied research is not only revolutionizing the education system, but all industries. Take the medical field, for example. With 3D printing, biomedical engineers can print living cells in a material that is used to reconstruct tissues in the body. The technology also allows medical students to print prototypes of the human heart or aortic valve, which could potentially reduce complications such as transcatheter replacement of the aortic valve in patients.

Many other institutions are already taking advantage of 3D printing. At NASA, for example, 3D printing is used to test alternative materials for improved aviation design like custom wings and rocket caps. The Smithsonian is also using the technology by digitizing many of its artifacts, including the skeleton of a T-Rex, to add a new historical perspective.

The creative freedom of 3D printing technology is transforming education inside and outside of the classroom. One day, students may be able to hold an ancient fossil in their hands without visiting a museum, or study a 3D replica of a human heart before it undergoes surgery – the possibilities are truly endless.

– Kyle Martin