The rise of 3D printers derives from the need to create physical prototypes for engineering and manufacturing rapidly and inexpensively, but the technology has been widely adopted for innumerable applications. A library can provide a central point of access and support for 3D printing for students and faculty across disciplines and programs beyond engineering and technology. Nontraditional uses include teaching persuasive communications through visual rhetoric in an English class, creating objects that can diffuse stereotypes and attitudes and enhancing understanding of physical anatomy. Numerous 3D model datasets and software are available for printing projects. 3D printing not only promotes learning but inspires creativity and fun.


3D printers
digital modeling and fabrication
diffusion of innovation
technology transfer
library and archival services

How 3D Printers Support Teaching in Engineering, Technology and Beyond

by Amy Van Epps, Davin Huston, John Sherrill, Ann Alvar and Anna Bowen

The origins of 3D printing are firmly embedded in engineering, specifically within industry and manufacturing, where the research and development of new products includes a process of creating a prototype to ensure a design meets all specifications, is sized correctly for the intended application, does not create unanticipated interactions and so forth. Historically, prototyping included either a casting or milling process to create the part, frequently at substantial cost for re-tooling and materials, as well as several weeks for manufacturing a single prototype. The need for faster, less expensive methods for creating functional prototypes began to gain traction in the 1980s with additive manufacturing process, also known as three-dimensional (3D) printers. With 3D printers it became possible for prototypes to be generated in days rather than weeks, at the cost of pennies or dollars rather than thousands or tens of thousands of dollars and directly from a computer-aided drafting (CAD) drawing.

The type of additive manufacturing or 3D printing used can vary depending on the intended use of the prototype. The most common methods are stereolithography (SLA), which is best for a visual confirmation of design; selective laser sintering (SLS), which offers a variety of materials including metals and can be used for functional prototyping; and fused deposition modeling (FDM) for creation of plastic prototypes [1]. The material variety and high quality products that can be produced by current generation 3D printers is allowing industry to move from rapid prototyping to rapid production [1]. For this reason, skills with 3D printing have become a central skill set for students studying engineering and technology. A recent article from IEEE [2] cites a study that 35% of engineering job listings now require familiarity with 3D printing and additive manufacturing processes.

The availability and access to 3D printers on university campuses has grown rapidly in the last five to 10 years. Originally, they existed in small pockets and for closed communities, typically with printers housed in the college of engineering and only accessible to students in the engineering programs or with printers available within a particular research group and only available to members of that group. If the printer is available to groups outside of one college or department, the funding model may limit access to students without grant funds or other university accounts to pay for a print job. Additionally, printers may be purchased to support a particular course or series of courses and only be available to students while they are enrolled in those courses. In addition, 3D printing provides an accurate scale prototype for capstone design projects, allowing students to have a functional prototype, previously not easily available in higher education due to cost restrictions for creating single units in a timely manner. While the kind of access described above may help with engineering and technology program accreditation and certainly helps build the skills students studying engineering and technology will need as they enter industry, it fails to acknowledge the wider uses of 3D printing in disciplines beyond the fields of engineering and technology.

Enter the library, or sometimes another unit on campus that sees the need to develop a service that provides 3D printing access to students and faculty in programs outside of those typically associated with manufacturing or product development. 3D printing services can range from simple end-user services, where the library receives a STL (stereolithography) file ready for printing and just sets up the job to print, to supporting the computers and software necessary for designing unique items, helping students learn and use the software, and printing the resulting product. The library is often seen as a non-disciplinary or cross-disciplinary space on campus, where access to the materials and services is available to all users. By bringing 3D printing into our libraries, access to 3D printers moves beyond gated access for a few to general access for all.

Moving Beyond Engineering

What is the need and use by non-engineering programs, you may ask. It is not limited just to printing the shared designs available online in the many 3D printing repositories. Imagine that you have access to a 3D printer and an idea of what you would like to create, but no experience with CAD software, which is commonly considered required expertise for creating a design to be printed on a 3D printer. Think again. Lack of experience with CAD software is not the barrier that many people believe. Go back to the shape you would like to create and envision the pieces of it that can be created by overlapping circles, squares or other simple shapes. These shapes are easy to draw in a free drawing program like TinkerCAD (www.tinkercad.com) and are all the expertise you need. Add some time and practice with the software, and almost any user can design items for 3D printing.

The previous paragraph includes a short introduction to how anyone could take an envisioned shape and move it into a file for 3D printing. While simplistic, it outlines how this technology is accessible to people beyond the typical fields of engineering and technology and for more things than just printing pre-existing designs from sites like Thingiverse. What follows is a look at how 3D printing has been incorporated into student learning and pedagogy in fields beyond engineering and technology.

3D Printing in English Class

One such non-traditional use explores the use of 3D printing in a first-year English class that focuses on digital rhetoric. In the course, students learn to be more persuasive and effective communicators through traditional forms of print and digital writing, as well as through websites, images, videos and other media. Complicating what most people think of as an English course, first-year composition situates writing as using symbols to create meaning and to persuade others to think and act in different ways. This approach requires students to write in the more familiar sense of alphabetic characters on a page, but also opens up possibilities for composing with different technologies and media. One of the ways to use this flexibility is to teach rhetoric through 3D printing.

For the third major assignment in the course, student teams identify situations where they can successfully persuade someone to think or act differently through a combination of writing and 3D printing. The main goal of the assignment is to design and prototype material objects that persuade people to engage with social, cultural and technological issues. However, rather than creating designs for a museum or art gallery, students create objects that people could encounter and interact with in their daily lives. To succeed, students have to use written and spoken rhetorical strategies, while also incorporating visual rhetoric and theory such as critical design. Furthermore, students produce a design plan, write a distribution plan, conduct usability evaluations, compose a rationale for their design and write an instructable as part of the overall digital fabrication assignment.


One team in Spring 2015 designed a phone case to cause people to question the relationship they share with their smartphones. An image of the case the students designed is in Figure 1.


Figure 1. Student designed cellphone case. Image courtesy of John Sherrill.

Another team from Fall 2014 fabricated a Purdue Pete PEZ candy dispenser to make Pete seem a little less scary (in response to several surveys that have ranked him as one of the “creepiest” characters in college sports) [3]. Purdue Pete is one of the mascots for Purdue University sporting events. He is an individual in a uniform, and the mascot head for Purdue Pete is oversized and elongated with large eyes, wearing a hardhat and carrying a sledgehammer. The PEZ dispenser prototype can be seen in Figure 2.


Figure 2. Images of the Purdue Pete PEZ dispenser. Image courtesy of John Sherrill.

Figure 2. Images of the Purdue Pete PEZ dispenser. Image courtesy of John Sherrill.

3D Printing in Human and Veterinary Anatomy Related Studies

The English class engages students in learning new skills in design and creation of objects for enhanced communication, while its application within anatomy focuses more on the reception of that communication through enhanced learning. Physical 3D models are proven tools that provide a significant advantage for students learning anatomy. Studies of pedagogy have shown the use of concrete examples and manipulatives improves student learning, regardless of subject content [4]. Studies specific to anatomy have found that students who participate in learning activities that use physical models of anatomic structures score significantly better on tests of anatomical knowledge than students who do similar activities using textbook images, virtual models or animal dissections [5, 6].

Unfortunately there are obstacles such as cost, availability and accuracy of available models that prevent many schools from providing this powerful learning tool to students. Facing such barriers, teachers have looked for alternatives such as virtual 3D models. Unfortunately researchers have found that virtual models do not provide the same benefits as physical models. They found that students who use additional 3D computer models perform comparably to those who just use a textbook and lecture notes [6, 7]. Some students try to make models by hand, but find hand crafting these models is very time consuming, and it is impossible to be certain that your models are accurate. With 3D printing the only thing a student needs to create a model is the software that came with the printer itself and the file to create the model. Printing a model can still prove challenging as these anatomical files can be expensive, difficult to find and/or have strict copyright protections. Sites such as Thingiverse provide some options, but many structures are still unavailable. Fortunately, there is a good option for students studying human anatomy.

BodyParts3D is a collection of 3D models described as “anatomical concepts” [8] made available through Japan’s Database Center for Life Science. In layman’s terms these anatomical concepts are body parts. Together this collection of parts fit together to form a whole-body model of one adult male. This dataset is available to download free of cost under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan license. Once a user learns the basics, it is easy to use this dataset to create physical models using 3D printing. As an additional advantage of using printed models, it becomes possible to create truly larger than life models, enlarging the bones to make details easier to see and enhancing student learning. A printed sphenoid bone, two views, can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Two views of a 3D-printed sphenoid bone. Image courtesy of Ann Alvar.

Figure 3. Two views of a 3D-printed sphenoid bone. Image courtesy of Ann Alvar.

At Purdue University, 3D printing has caught the attention of educators trying to find a replacement for the bone kits that students use in their veterinary gross anatomy classes as learning tools. The regular bone kits are expensive to purchase and create, and they also are easily damaged in classroom use. Using computerized tomography (CT) scans of animals and their bones, an open-source software package called Slicer3D (www.slicer.org) converts these images into volumetric models that can be printed using any 3D printer. While the conversion is not perfect, some alterations can be made using additional software (Meshlab, http://meshlab.sourceforge.net, and Netfabb, www.netfabb.com are the most common) which can correct or smooth over the imperfections. The printed bone kits can cost substantially less than regular bones, and any replacement parts are extremely inexpensive and quick to reprint. While cheaper to replace, the printed bones are also more resilient since the plastic used in printing is less brittle than real bone. Figure 4 shows the results of the process described above to generate bones from a dog’s leg.

Figure 4. 3D-printed leg bones of a dog created from multiple CT scans. Image courtesy of Davin Huston.

Figure 4. 3D-printed leg bones of a dog created from multiple CT scans. Image courtesy of Davin Huston.

Have Fun

While there is much educational value and there are many solid pedagogical reasons to be using 3D printing in the classroom, it is worth remembering the fun side of creation. Many find the creative activity that excited us so much as children is simply dormant, and interacting with a 3D printer renews this creativity and offers a new outlet. Not only can users unlock their own creativity, the accessible nature of 3D printing allows people to work with children in selecting items to be printed and share the joy watching the objects grow, one row at a time. When printers are in libraries, library staff and librarians should explore the creative process and understand the service being offered as well. If staff are excited about creating new objects, they are more likely to enjoy helping others with creations clients bring to the printing services.

The joy of creation can extend to printing things that are already designed as well. For example, there are print files available for all of the characters in the online game Minecraft, which many children (and adults) are enjoying. The glee of discovery in your own ability to make things, particularly recognizable things like these figures, is shared by children of all ages.

Libraries can embrace the fun aspect of 3D printing in a way that printers in departments, designated for educational use only, may not support. While the engineering and technology students may be versed in CAD programs and accustomed to printing their objects, if the object is a personal creation meant for a gift or other non-academic use, they too will need the availability of a printer in the library.


These few examples should help a librarian or other individual supporting a 3D printing service realize the variety of connections that can be made in unanticipated departments and the breadth of use the technology can support. Access to 3D printing supports learning new skills and technologies – a rather obvious connection – and brings an added perspective or viewpoint to material that may otherwise be uninteresting or, literally, difficult to envision. Additionally, bringing a 3D printing service into the library can bring our services and support for learning back to the forefront of thinking for both students and faculty.

Resources Mentioned in the Article

[1] Bak, D. (2003). Rapid prototyping or rapid production? 3D printing processes move industry toward the latter. Assembly Automation, 23(4), 340-345. doi:10.1108/01445150310501190

[2] Platt, J. R. (April 3, 2015). Thirty-five percent of engineering jobs now require 3-D printing skills. The Institute. Retrieved from http://theinstitute.ieee.org/career-and-education/career-guidance/thirtyfive-percent-of-engineering-jobs-now-require-3d-printing-skills

[3] Smith, K. (July 15, 2015). The 12 creepiest mascots you’ve ever seen. New York Post. Retrieved from http://nypost.com/2014/07/15/the-12-creepiest-mascots-youve-ever-seen/

[4] Cochran, K. F., King, R. A., & DeRuiter, J. A. (April 1991). Pedagogical content knowledge: A tentative model for teacher preparation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago. ED340683. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED340683.pdf

[5] Lombardi, S. A., Hicks, R. E., Thompson, K. V., & Marbach-Ad, G. (2014). Are all hands-on activities equally effective? Effect of using plastic models, organ dissections, and virtual dissections on student learning and perceptions. Advances in Physiology Education, 38(1), 80–86. doi:10.1152/advan.00154.2012

[6] Preece, D., Williams, S. B., Lam, R., & Weller, R. (2013). “Let’s Get Physical”: Advantages of a physical model over 3D computer models and textbooks in learning imaging anatomy. Anatomical Sciences Education, 6(4), 216–224. doi:10.1002/ase.1345

[7] Tan, S., Hu, A., Wilson, T., Ladak, H., Haase, P., & Fung, K. (2012). Role of a computer-generated three-dimensional laryngeal model in anatomy teaching for advanced learners. The Journal of Laryngology & Otology, 126(04), 395–401. doi:10.1017/S0022215111002830

[8] Mitsuhashi, N., Fujieda, K., Tamura, T., Kawamoto, S., Takagi, T., & Okubo, K. (2009). BodyParts3D: 3D structure database for anatomical concepts. Nucleic Acids Research, 37(suppl 1), D782–D785. doi:10.1093/nar/gkn613

Amy Van Epps is associate professor at Purdue University Libraries, Purdue University. She can be reached at vanepa<at>purdue.edu.

Davin H. Huston is clinical assistant professor at the School of Engineering Technology, Purdue Polytechnic Institute, Purdue University. He can be reached at dhhuston<at>purdue.edu.

John Sherrill is graduate teaching assistant in the English department, College of Liberal Arts, Purdue University. He can be reached at sherrilj<at>purdue.edu.

Ann Alvar is a graduate student in the department of speech, language and hearing sciences, College of Health and Human Sciences, Purdue University. She can be reached at aalvar<at>purdue.edu.

Anna Bowen is an undergraduate student at the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, Purdue University. She can be reached at bowen23<at>purdue.edu.