Category: 3D Printing

About a month ago, I brought a 3D printer from Chicago to Recife, Brazil – smack in the tropics and right on the ocean.  A glass of cold water gets covered in a film of moisture in about 10 seconds.  The cool ocean breeze hides the fact that it is humid here, as my rusty tools can attest.

This is why I missed the class on how PLA 3D printer filament soaks up water like a sponge.  I saw the results of this when I tried printing a luggage tag for a friend.  The first attempt (shown on the right side of the picture below) was awful.  Aside from appearance, it was spongy since the filament didn’t fill in the shape.  Also, the filament jammed in the extruder, and I had to take everything apart to fix it.  Twice.


Once I figured out the problem, I found a quickish solution, and the new tag came our perfectly as you can see from the left side of the image above.

First, when PLA (or ABS, for that matter) sucks up water, it expands the filament, leading to extruder jams.  Second, as the filament moves through the heater, the absorbed water turns into steam that keeps the filament from extruding properly.  The resulting print was spongy because of all the holes caused by the steam escaping the print nozzle.

So – how do you fix this?  First, move to Arizona.  OK, just kidding.

I took the bad spool of filament and put it in the oven at about 60C.  You don’t want to get much hotter than this because the filament will soften, and you’ll lose the whole roll.  As it was, the spool itself warped pretty badly, but the filament dried our pretty well after 2 hours in the oven.  With no further protection, it worked pretty well for about a week.  (Did I mention how humid it gets here?)

The next step is to keep dry filament in an airtight plastic container with reusable dessicant packs that keep everything inside nice and dry, and can be recharged when they lose their oomph.  Amazon sells several kinds, and also sells low-cost digital thermometers with humidity gauges so you can see how nice things are in your box.

My friend, Bill Steele, from Polar3D, had another great suggestion.  Use a big enough box to let you run a rod through the sides (a toilet plunger handle works well) to let the spool of filament turn.  Then, put a tiny hole in the lid through which you can get the filament out and feed it to your printer.

While humidity is not a problem everywhere, it is a challenge in some parts of the US, so pass this blog entry to your friends who might benefit from it.  I spent a week puzzling this out, and I’d like to save time for those who might benefit from these ideas.

Now go print something outrageously fabulous!


In the last few years, we’ve visited flagship Maker Faires in San Mateo, California and New York City where we got to hang out with over 100,000 kindred spirits for whom tinkering is a critical component of life.  While formal Maker Faires are a fairly recent phenomenon, the educational application of “making” dates back to the dawn of the previous century when John Dewey said that what a child knew was not as important as what he did with what he knew.  This perspective from the Father of Progressive Education remained central to the thinking of educational leaders like MIT Professor Seymour Papert who, in the early 1990’s, coined the word “constructionism” to describe the process of building representations of knowledge separate from the learner himself. (Papert, Seymour, and Harel, Idit. “Situating constructionism.” Constructionism 36 (1991): 1-11.)

Even libraries have joined the movement with public “makerspaces” being added to facilities previously dedicated to quiet, paper-based, research.  As Erica Compton from the Idaho Commission for Libraries has said, “Libraries need to become more like kitchens and less like grocery stores ― a place where patrons are able to construct knowledge, where they can create, build, make and be actively engaged.”

One would think that a recent surge in constructionist activities has taken the world by storm, perhaps at the expense of reflective thought or of activities of value, even if they don’t result in artifacts.  Well, as far as traditional schooling goes, the progressivist philosophy of Dewey has yet to become the norm.  To be fair, every school has students engaged in making things.  Whether it is a science fair project displayed on a tri-fold board, or more complex constructions, every teacher engages students in some sort of project that requires “making.”   But it is the rare school that embraces the “making” philosophy across the curriculum.

As a product of a progressive public high school in Chicago, my life was pretty equally split between hand-based and head-based learning.  And, it was the work we did with our hands that made what we learned with our heads “stick” and make sense.  As a result, my first year in Engineering at Northwestern University was basically a walk in the park.

While any subject at any grade can benefit from a rich “making” component, the STEM fields are clearly low hanging fruit in this regard.  There are two reasons for this:  First, the scientific method is based on the testing of conjectures through experimentation and our curricular interest in technology and “coding” (programming) feeds into “making” as well.  Second, the Next Generation Science Standards and (to a lesser extent) the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics mandate the use of inquiry and project-based learning as the vehicles through which these subjects are navigated.

And, yet, in too many schools the ground in which these forces are planted lies fallow.  The time has come to change this, and the tools needed are inexpensive and easy to get.  We’ll describe some of these tools, but first there is another topic to explore: the physical structure of school.  According to the architect Prakash Nair, too many schools are built around “bells and cells.”  Children move from place to place at fixed intervals and (especially in the upper grades) sit in rooms at desks all facing the front so they can harvest the wisdom imparted from their teacher.  It is a rare school that allows the free flow of students from place to place and lets them work on projects as long as they need to.

While the incorporation of makerspaces in traditional schools is possible, there is a long way to go if the goal is deep pedagogical change.  In some cases, schools have a STEM lab where groups of kids work on a variety of projects with the freedom to move from place to place as needed.  Except for the burden of bells, such environments can be quite productive ― functioning more like studios than classrooms.  For many, this is a great first step, but it carries the risk that it will be isolated in fear that the practices there would infect other rooms.  As Professor Papert asked on numerous occasions, “What would be the impact of the pencil on education if you had to go to the pencil lab to use one?”

On the classroom computer front, it might appear ― at first glance ― that recent trends are moving us further away from supporting a culture of making.  The reason I say this is because Chromebooks are now the number-one computing platform in America’s schools.  Since Chromebooks rely on cloud-based applications, traditional software is no longer supported, leaving users at the mercy of those developers willing and eager to create applications that can be run over the Internet.  Also, it was not clear at the start how Chromebooks would accommodate maker hardware like 3D printers, and robotics control devices like the popular Arduino board.

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 2.28.56 PMIt turns out these fears are unfounded.  In the domain of student programming, for example, everything from MIT’s Scratch ( to Terrapin Logo has (or will soon have) versions that work splendidly on Chromebooks  This helps move the Chromebook from a content delivery platform to one that supports unbridled student creativity.

With the current interest in students learning to program (coding) these developments are welcome.  In some ways this harkens back to the early days of personal computing when there was little commercial software, and students had to learn to write programs themselves.  Of course, the programming world has changed a lot since the early 1980’s with construction block languages like Scratch coexisting with text-based programming languages like Logo and Python.

Of course, with programming languages, the results reside on the computer screen.  With peripherals like the Arduino, computer programs can interact with remote sensors and output devices like lhyperduinoamps and motors.  Using tools like HyperDuino for Chrome ( students can build projects that bridge the virtual and physical worlds.

A popular starting point for HyperDuino is the making of interactive tri-fold displays where, by touching certain areas of the display, the computer might play a video and lights on the physical display turn on to show the area being explored at that time..

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 7.47.09 PMMore elaborate constructions can be made using the Fab@School Maker Studio software ( that cuts out elaborate paper shapes designed by students using the Silhouette computer controlled paper cutter.

Even 3D printers have joined the cloud, making them work perfectly with Chromebooks as powerful tools for making.  Two companies with excellent cloud-based printers are Polar3D (, and New Matter (

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.51.38 PMWhile cloud-based design tools for 3D printing have been around for awhile (e.g., Tinkercad), new and more powerful tools have arrived, such as BlocksCAD (  This tool uses Scratch-like programming to design 3D shapes of amazing richness and complexity.

My point is that the maker movement in education is supported on many levels ― from the new standards to the new technologies and beyond.  It is time for heads and hands to be unified in support of learning across all grades and subjects.

Meet the author

Dr. Thornburg and his colleagues conduct workshops on maker technologies ranging from 3D printing to using the HyperDuino technology with Chrome.  He can be reached at

I’ve had the Polar3D ( printer for a couple of months and it is a delight to use. Norma found this printer at the ISTE conference, and it generated a lot of interest.

If you use PLA filament, the adhesive to the glass base plate is simply hairspray.  It does raftless printing very well so there is often no scrap to remove, and the print quality is amazing. The designers really thought this printer through.  It works right out of the box – no calibration required.  Filament loading and unloading is a breeze.  The initial software setup takes some work (and can be improved) but once done, you are all set.  The only challenge I’ve had is when I take the printer on the road and have to switch to a different network, but the phone help is quite patient with me.


Unlike my other printers, it prints from the cloud, so your stl files are saved in your online account.   Also, a built-in camera lets you see your job as it is printing from anywhere in the world you are logged in.

An advantage in school settings is that several printers can be set up in a central location and print jobs can be sent from any classroom using any internet-connected device.  This is clearly a printer worth looking at!

That said, this is a dynamic field and I’ll  be keeping my eyes open.

Made in Space created the 3D printer installed on the International Space Station that works in a microgravity mediumenvironment.  NASA has decided to open the design process for some parts for the Station to the public.  For example, people are encouraged to submit designs for a handrail clamp to hold various objects (  This competition (which ends in February) has cash awards, but I think no award could be greater than having something you designed installed on the ISS!

Check it out!

With the holidays getting into full gear, it seemed appropriate to make some gifts that won’t be found at the local store. One project we did was to design and build a 3D Tic Tac Toe set that could be made on a 3D printer. Since I’m currently writing a book on designing 3D shapes using the OpenSCAD language ( it seemed appropriate to create our shapes with this tool. (By the way, you can get a draft of the book for free by contacting me.)

The game board is a square shape with eight rods on which pieces can be placed. The goal is to get three of the same shape in a row, either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally on any of the four faces. The game pieces are round balls and crosses with holes in them to let them stack on the rods.

The program for the board is:

// 3D Tic Tac Toe Base
// game base
cube ([100, 100, 5]);
for (j=[0:1]){
for (i=[0:2]){
translate ([10+i*40, 10+j*80, 0]){
cylinder (80, 5, 5);
for (j=[0:1]){
translate ([10+j*80, 50, 0]){
cylinder (80, 5, 5);

(The details of programming in this language are included in the free book draft.)

3d tic tac toe board

The pieces (noughts and crosses) are designed in a second program and printed in an array of nine pieces, one shape at a time. For example, the program for the noughts is as follows:

// 3D tic tac toe pieces
module nought (){
difference (){
sphere (15);
cylinder (40, 6, 6, center=true);

module cross (){
difference (){
union (){
rotate ([0, 45, 0]){
cube ([10, 16, 30], center=true);
rotate ([0, -45, 0]){
cube ([10, 16, 30], center=true);
cylinder (40, 6, 6, center=true);

//nought array
for (j=[0:2]){
for (i=[0:2]){
translate ([-25+i*35, j*35, 0]){
nought ();


To make the crosses, the noughts array needs to be replaced with this one:

//cross array
for (j=[0:2]){
for (i=[0:2]){
translate ([-25+i*35, j*35, 0]){
cross ();


All the pieces are exported as STL files for the printer to use, and I chose different colors for the board, the noughts and the crosses.

While the rules are the same as for ordinary tic tac toe, the game is made more challenging by addition of the four faces, and that any vertically stacked shape has to be on top of the platform or another shape.

I made 12 of each shape – enough to fill the entire board.

Enjoy your new game for the holidays and let me know what you think!  Write me at

On September 19-20 Norma and I attended the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science. This extravaganza had so much to offer that two days were barely enough to scratch the surface. The Faire itself had everything from exhibits of new tools for makers to hands’-on areas where you could learn to solder, or build thngs of your own.



One of the many new products being demonstrated was the Kinderlab robotics system where kids can assemble computer

programs with wooden blocks whose bar codes were then scanned by a robotic platform that would then follow the instructions in the program. This project was one of several Kickstarter projects on display.

Based on our interests, we looked very closely at the 3D printing systems, along with some of the new CNC machines that cut elaborate shapes from blocks of wood, wax, plastic, or aluminum. On the 3D printer front, the M3D printer was

M3D Printer

M3D Printer

receiving a lot of attention. This under-$400 printer doesn’t have a very large print volume, but has some super features, including a special circuit that maintains alignment of the print head automatically. Many other 3D printers were on display but one of the ones getting a lot of attention was the new system being sold by Dremel. This is one of the first 3D printers with a well-known name behind it, and this device will be sold in places like Home Depot. When 3D rinters first started showing up for the hobby market, they required a lot of adjustment to keep them working well. In the following years, features (like self-leveling build plates) started to become more common. The fact that well-known brands are entering the market shows that this technolog is becoming mainstream. This doesn’t mean that smaller companies will go away, just that they will be held to high standards.

Dremel 3D Printer

Dremel 3D Printer

Of course, in this short posting, we can’t do justice to the Maker Faire. For example, two Italian exhibitors were showing

Chocolate iPhone Case

Chocolate iPhone Case

interesting devices, including a 3D printer using chocolate (in case you get hungry and want to eat your iPhone case). Another system from FABtotum in Milan combines a 3D printer, computer controlled milling machine, and high resolution scanner into one elegant box. Products like these help set the stage for the next Maker Faire!

MIT’s Mitch Resnick has said that Maker Faires are great staff development for educators. Our experience shows he is right.

Last week we conducted a workshop for educators on 3D printing in the Indianapolis public library.  They have a space that was perfect for working with twenty educators.  Several 3D printers were provided by 3D Parts Mfg., and Norma and I were the workshop leaders.

Indianapolis workshop

Indianapolis workshop

We started with a big challenge that put the participants in the deep end of the pool. (I’m not sharing the task since some of you may be in one of our upcoming workshops and I don’t want you to get a head-start!)  The point is that the participants saw cross-curricular connections to this activity.  This is important because teachers, in general, want to see how any new thing connects to the curriculum they are responible for.  One of the nice characteristics of 3D printing is that virtually any activity cuts across all the STEM subjects, and many can even be connected to other subject areas – including fine arts, history, and others. From our perspective, the critical element was having the participants see themselves as designers.  Toward that end, we made sure they had access to several 3D design tools rather than just focusing on a single tool like Tinkercad, for example.  The fact is that some kinds of designs are easier in some tools than in others, and the more choices teachers and students have, the more likely they will be to create incredible designs. Some teachers felt that recipes for projects were appropriate, and they did projects from our book The Invent to Learn Guide to 3D Printing in the Classroom, since these projects are already in recipe form. We had plenty of assistance from Kim Brand and his colleagues at 3D Parts Mfg.  They provided the printers we used, and handled all the logistics so all Norma and I had to do was show up with our handput packages for everyone. Since that workshop we have been contacted to conduct more workshops around the country.  The 3D printing revolution is ready for prime time!

Our upcoming workshop explores many things, including how to extrude two-dimensional graphics created with TurtleArt into three-dimensional shapes that can bed for many things – including pressing patterns into clay for decorative tiles.  The original idea for this project came from a great blog by Josh Burker (

The following Animoto video shows a project done (with some help from us) by our 7-year-old Granddaughter, Bianca.

She will be coming to our 3D Printing in Education workshop in Indianapolis later this week.  From fine arts to STEM education, 3D printing is a powerful tool!


Regular readers know that I usually post longer blogs on particular topics, but we have an event coming up that should be of interest to many of you.

On July 23, we  will be doing a hand’s on workshop in Indianapolis introducing educators to both the software and hardware associated with making things.  Every participant goes home with full working software for their own use, and with an understanding on how 3D printing fits into the STEM curriculum.  Information can be found here –

After the workshop, we’ll post a report on how it went.  Needless to say, we are prepared to do this workshop anywhere, so you should contact us to schedule a workshop in your area:

I have two 3D printers already, and am familar with several others that look interesting.  In my quest to stay on top of this dynamic field, a few weeks ago I got a da Vinci 1.0 3D printer from Studica (,  a company whose focus is on hardware and software products for education.  Studica sells a complete line of 3D printers, but the one that caught my attention was the da Vinci.  This machine retails for $499, which is staggeringly low when you look at the system.  First, it has a very large print volume – 20cm by 20cm by 20cm.  This makes it one of the largest print beds in the under $2,000 printer category.  The ABS filament is provided in nicely designed cartridges that don’t cost an arm and a leg.  The overall look of the printer is quite elegant.  The transparent case lets you see everything as it is printing (especially if you turn on the interior light.)  A built-in display lets you do a lot of tasks (such as loading or changing filament) without having a computer attached.

img_davinciThis printer uses a glass print bed that you coat with a thin layer of glue from a regular glue stick.  The advantage of this adhesive method is that you don’t generally need to print using a “raft” – a layer of plastic put down by the nozzle  before the parts are printed.  Another nice touch is that the print nozzle is automatically cleaned after printing and any extra filament strands are placed in a box that can be removed later to get rid of scraps.  The internal hardware looks very well designed.  In fact, just looking inside this machine made me think I was looking at a very high end printer!

As with any 3D printer, it is essential to be sure the print bed is calibrated properly, otherwise the parts will look awful.  The da Vinci printer is calibrated at the factory, but, in shipping, the calibration screws may get jarred from their optimal positions.   Fortunately, this is easy to fix, and the technical support team sent me a link to a short video to show, step by step, how to align the print bed.  The print head has a special electrode on it that is brought into contact with the build plate hardware at three locations.  The built-in display then lets you know what adjustments are needed, or, if it is in the range of automatic alignment, to accept the new settings.  In my experience, this task only needs to be done once.

da vinci softwareAs for printing, you simply connect the printer to your computer using a USB port and run the supplied software.  From this program you load a file you’ve created or downloaded in the form of an STL file – the format most often used on 3D printers.  Once you press the Print button, the print bed is heated to about 100C while your object model is sliced into layers so the part can be built layer by layer.  Once printing has started, the built-in display lets you know how long the print job will take.  If you want, you can disconnect your computer from the printer at this point so it can be used for other things (like designing more things to print!)

Once the printer is finished with a job, the bed is cooled down and moved to the bottom to make it easy to remove your design.  The manufacturer provides a plastic scraper to separate the part from the bottom of the build plate.  My experience is that, once the part has cooled down, the plastic contracts just a bit, and it is easy to snap the part from the plate, leaving a very smooth finish on the bottom, and the build plate ready to be cleaned and coated with a new thin glue layer.

As for print quality, the parts are not quite as nicely finished as those I make on my Afinia printer, but for most school projects it is pretty good.  The downside is that this printer takes a lot of time to print projects.  In a school setting, time is important; but the large build plate might let you print several student projects at a time, making this less of an issue.

Overall, I rate the industrial design very high.  The price is unbelievably low.  Technical support is wonderful.  The only downsides when compared with more expensive printers is the print time and slightly reduced print quality.  Taking everything into consideration, the da Vinci 1.0 is a good buy for those wanting to get involved in 3D printing.  Later, some may choose to scale up to more expensive printers with higher print quality and faster speed, but, even then, this printer will get a lot of use!