Since 1986 we have the possibility of designing and printing original plastic parts and objects in our homes by using 3D printers. But it is during these months of a health crisis when we see, in a real way, how important this new technological machine is. It can be useful for our society by helping people in danger of contamination by COVID-19.
During the last ten years, we have seen on the internet a lot of examples of prototypes and objects created in laboratories, universities, or by anonymous makers. Also, in many countries, their educational use has been enhanced by incorporating their use in the curriculum of Secondary school students. If we enter the words “3D” in the search engine of Scientix, we will find information about several European projects of great interest for their educational use.
What exactly is a 3D printer? It is a low cost programmable electromechanical device that you can buy with a price starting from 200 euros. It basically consists of a set of step motors (capable of very precise movements controlled by a microcontroller card), a plastic extruder, and a glass platform. The extruder can reach temperatures of around 200º C to melt the plastic and it is moved by the step motors (by means of a gear mechanism and toothed belts) in all three directions of space, depositing on the platform a continuous thread of semi-molten material that accumulates in overlapping layers to create the shape of the object.
Before the machine starts building the object, it is necessary to have drawn your piece with a three-dimensional drawing application and save your creation in a .stl format (an acronym for stereolithography). Next, you have to prepare the part with a slicer software. The file created will be the one containing instructions that the 3D printer will follow to create the part. It should also be mentioned that due to its popularization, the inclusion of this machine has been very important to the beginning of the so-called Open Hardware movement, which avoids the use of commercial patents. Allowing to share experiences and resources on how to create printers in your own home, which logically has resulted in the lowering of its price. See below an example of a face shield and mask printed by the students.
As a consequence of its easy use and small price, during these weeks of quarantine, we have been able to observe the potential of this machine when groups of makers around Europe have massively created and shared various useful designs to protect us from COVID-19. We can find great examples on the internet of how to create protections on websites from Italy, the Czech Republic, or Sweden. With the solidarity and generosity of groups of makers and teachers, in Spain, hundreds of face shields have been created and distributed to staff in health and care centers. Newspapers and televisions around the world have echoed this phenomenon, in such a way that the initiative has been disseminated and launched on all continents. But with a 3D printer, you can also make other useful objects like masks, valves for respirators, hands-free door openers, and many more objects that we will discover in the next weeks. See in the picture the details of a 3D printed piece.
In my personal experience during these days, as a Technology teacher at IES Alpajés, a secondary school in Madrid that participates in the 2020 STEM Discovery Week Campaign, I have used the printer of my school together with those of personal use of three participant students in our European project “MET inside!”, in a coordinated way, to be an active part of this movement of solidarity. We can currently affirm that our students and the educational communities have more knowledge about the benefits of 3D printers as a tool for creative use in real applications thanks to the initiative originated at the maker movement by designing useful objects for protection against COVID -19.
Author: Leopoldo Mosquera Taboada, Spain Scientix Ambassador
Stříteský, O., Průša, J. and Bach, M., 2019. Basics Of 3D Printing With Josef Prusa. [ebook] Prusa Research s.r.o., Partyzánská 188/7a 170 00 Praha Česká republika. Available at: <https://www.chattlab.org/system/files/2019-07/basics-of-3D-printing.pdf> [Accessed 10 May 2020].
Wainwright, O., 2020. 10 Covid-Busting Designs: Spray Drones, Fever Helmets, Anti-Virus Snoods. [online] the Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/mar/25/10-coronavirus-covid-busting-designs> [Accessed 14 May 2020].