What is 3D Printing? Why is it Important?

What is 3D Printing?


3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of fabrication in which an object is created layer by layer, based on a 3D digital model. A variety of materials and technologies can be used in 3D printing; our printers use a heated extruder to deposit successive layers of plastic to create an object. 3D printing allows you to bring an idea rapidly from concept to reality. You can produce objects that can not easily be created by traditional manufacturing techniques, while maintaining low-cost and high accessibility. Check out 3D Printing Basics: The Free Beginner’s Guide, for more information about a variety of topics related to 3D printing.

Why is 3D Printing Important in Education?

3D printing has begun to revolutionize numerous industries including manufacturing, medicine, and fashion. The technology has inspired social activism. Organizations  like e-NABLE have developed around 3D printing. e-NABLE is a global network of volunteers who create free 3D printed prosthetic hands for those in need. 3D printing is also having an impact in education from primary to university level. Visualizations of complex geometries, molecules, and mathematical relations can be printed and manipulated. Accurate replicas of delicate artifacts can be produced and handled. Iterative design can be practiced with the falling cost of printing. Students exercise and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills through the rapid development of prototypes to solve real-life problems. From engineering to the liberal arts, 3D printing provides students with new opportunities to experiment, design, and be creative.

Additional Resources

Checkout the websites below for more information about 3D modeling and printing.


3D Printing Industry




Models: Where Do They Come From?

Need a Digital Model?  Worlds-First-Color-Multi-material-3D-Printer-1

No model? No problem! There are multiple online services that host thousands of 3D models – many freely available! Check out Thingiverse, or one of the other sites, and grab a model. Just be sure to download as either an .OBJ or .STL file.

Want to Create Your Own Design? 

A variety of design programs are available for free. If you want to get started with 3D modeling, we suggest that you consider a web-based CAD tool. Tinkercad and Leopoly both offer an intuitive interface and easy transition into 3D thinking. OnShape is a more robust tool, offering the ability to test your designs in their simulator. Detailed tutorials for each of the programs are available on the companies’ websites. We encourage you to explore one of these software programs to modify an existing or create an original design.

A large number of companies make an array of design software to suit a variety of applications. Checkout 3der.org for a list of other design software.

Back to the Future: 3D Scanning & Printing the Past

20160817_132521Colgate University’s Special Collections and University Archives houses an array of written materials and items related to the history of the University, and includes a series of Sumerian cuneiforms that date back to approximately 2100 to 2200 B.C. One of the earliest forms of writing, Colgate’s cuneiforms depict the financial transactions of the time. A “traveling” set of the cuneiforms are frequently transported to a variety of classrooms for faculty and students to view.

In 2015 Colgate’s Academic Technologies team experimented with 3D scanning, modeling, and printing technologies to increase awareness of, and access to, these technologies within the Colgate community. Through this work, Sarah Keen, Head of Special Collections and University Archivist at Colgate, expressed an interest in reproducing the “traveling” cuneiform collection.    

Several Colgate staff members, Douglas Higgins, Instructional Technologist, Allison Grim, Conservation Technician, and Rich Grant, Technical Director for Academic and Media Technologies worked to reproduce the set using multiple techniques. However, these techniques could not reproduce the details of the items.

During this time Doug Higgins collaborated several times with Ian Roy, Head of MakerLab / Assistant Director of Research Technology and Innovation, at Brandeis University, and Jordan Tynes, Manager of Scholarly Innovations, at Wellesley College. They agreed to provide their equipment and knowledge to Colgate to support the completion of this project.

20160817_142031 (1)On August 17, 2016, Mr. Roy and Mr. Tynes visited the University to 3D scan the “traveling” cuneiforms using two Spider scanners from Artec3D. With a 0.1 millimeter resolution the scanners are ideal for “heritage preservation.” It took approximately 10
to 15 minutes to scan and generate a digital model of each cuneiform. The models are available to be viewed on the
Hub’s Sketchfab site. These digital models allow us to share the cuneiforms beyond our local community or recreate them with 3D printing. In addition, the models reveal details not visible with the naked eye.


The applications for teaching, learning, and research of these 3D technologies are limitless. Objects from remote locations can be shared with colleagues to support research, or digitally and physically brought into the classroom for study. Digital collections could be made accessible to the local and global Colgate community. The Academic Technologies group is currently exploring ways to secure this type of equipment for the faculty, students, and staff at Colgate.

Written by Douglas Higgins