When speaking with teachers about their efforts to bring 3D design and 3D printing programs into their K-12 classrooms, the one pervasive question is still - why?

Teachers try to get funding from administration and are asked - why do you need a 3D printer?  Administration springs funding on teachers earmarked for 3D printers, and teachers ask - why do I need to take time out of my classroom to teach how to use a 3D printer?  Teachers introduce 3D printing to their classrooms and the parents ask - why are you wasting my child’s time with some “fad”?

Answer - preparation for future jobs.  And current jobs.  ALL the jobs.  Medicine, video games, architecture, manufacturing, product design, special effects for TV and movies, automotive, entrepreneurial efforts we’ve never even heard of (like desktop 3D printers themselves were in 2011) and more all require some form of 3D modeling skills.  And the tool of choice to fabricate those models in reality - prototype or final product - is 3D printing.

Teaching simple 3D modeling software like Tinkercad in schools not only prepares students to broaden the scope of job opportunities they might not have considered before, but the practice of designing something in CAD software also covers core STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) standards that need to be taught anyway.  

Engagement is the unique factor here.  Teachers need to work especially hard with the current generation to grab their attention and keep them engaged.  Brains are changing.  There are more tactile learners and kids that have various issues with paying attention than ever before (even if that issue is being distracted by the cell phone in their pocket.)  Incorporating 3D design and 3D printing into the lessons teachers need to teach anyway makes the lesson stick and the classroom time more fun.

Here are a few examples of vocations you may not have thought about before which require 3D modeling and 3D printing skills:


Many of us saw that episode of Grey’s Anatomy where the doctors 3D printed a model made from a patient’s CT scan so they could really get a 360 degree view of the issue before going in and performing surgery.  This has proven to be effective in hospitals all over the world.  

“Although we look at a 2D scan, really we work in a 3D world,” explains Dr. Alex Chee, a practicing Interventional Pulmonologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard University Medical School. “You may point a camera in one way, but you need to see what’s happening on the other side.  When you 3D print a model, you can see it from all sides and know not to cut too deep.”

Dr. Alex Chee shows 3D printed surgical models at Maker Faire NY 2017
Dr. Alex Chee shows 3D printed surgical models at Maker Faire NY 2017

3D printing is also being used in medical facilities for healthcare simulation to increase surgery success rate and to facilitate discussions with the patient’s families.

“We use 3D printing to achieve enhanced engagement and understanding from patients, and for better planning and anticipation of potential complications,” says Matt Seabrook, a Simulation Technologist at Children’s Hospital Alabama. “With further investment in this technology we will see decreased OR times, decreased blood loss, and potentially better surgical outcomes.”

Meanwhile, others in this growing field are modeling their own anatomically correct surgical trainers and fabricating them in-house using inexpensive desktop 3D printers to save their hospitals thousands of dollars.  David Escobar, a Healthcare Simulation Technology Expert at Level 3 Healthcare in Arizona, has been a vocal and visible advocate of this application.

“We developed laparoscopic surgery trainers using Fusion 360 in a matter of minutes that are now being used to train residents,” says Escobar. “There’s no limitation to what this technology can do to improve patient care.”   


Architecture has always been a field where CAD design is key to being successful for final building plans. And with inexpensive desktop 3D printers popping up in more and more design studios and architecture firms, these skills are even more in demand as they are being applied to iterative models as well.

Garrett Faulkner is a Digital Fabrication Specialist and Architectural Model Maker for Faulkner Industrial.  He uses 3D printing to make ideas for homes come to life, while saving his company a ton of time and money.

Architectural model home created by Garrett Faulkner
Architectural model home created by Garrett Faulkner

Historically, architecture models took weeks to build out of balsa wood and cork.  If the design was too complex for the materials available, all they got was a representation of the idea, not the real thing. With 3D printing, they can produce exact replicas of their designs in full detail in just days, and for a few dollars in plastic.  This allows for more experimentation in the design process, and ultimately for a better building.  


Right now there is a major worldwide shortage of trained machine operators in the 3D printing (aka: additive manufacturing) world.

Tim Minshall of Cambridge University recently spoke at twelfth annual International Conference on Additive Manufacturing and 3D Printing in the UK, noting that skills and education ‘Is not a big thing. It’s THE big thing’.

While differentiating between R&D skills and productions skills needed for commercial manufacturing, Minshall reminded the audience that we’ve been here before, when robotics and CNC machines were brought into the manufacturing workflow.

“It is just another production technology...any production engineering environment [today] has people using robots and CNC machines,” Minshall said. “We successfully developed skills around these technologies and the world did not collapse. It’s not impossible [with AM].”

Middle and high schools are developing makerspaces (think majorly updated shop class) which mimic real-world manufacturing environments that students are likely to encounter in college, and in the workforce.  This is especially important in towns where manufacturing of any kind is the driving industry, like Detroit for automotive or Southern California for aerospace.

At Tustin High School in Southern California, teacher Ed Hernandez leads the T-Tech Academy of Technology & Engineering, their award winning STEM program now entering its eighth year as a CPA academy.  Students need to apply to the four-year elective program, and when accepted, they gradually learn how to use a variety of software and hardware available tools (SolidWorks, electronics, 3D Printing, CNC machining, welding, etc.) so that they will know when to apply the right tool for the right job. It’s that thorough process combined with the skills to operate modern machinery that make for the best future job applicants.

T-Tech Team at UC Irvine Energy Invitational
T-Tech students show off their electric vehicle at the UCI Energy Invitational

"For many, school in the US is now merely an academic exercise, "says Hernandez.  "Over the past twenty or thirty years we've become a nation of users, whereas we used to be a nation of makers.  To reverse this trend, it is imperative that we bridge the gap between theory in the classroom and skills in the workplace by developing a more hands-on approach to education."

To date, 50% of all graduating T-Tech seniors have gone on to major in STEM fields at four-year universities.  Even for those who decide the program isn’t for them, it can save parents thousands of dollars if their children were to figure out they don’t like engineering when they get to college!

Product Design

Hey kids, you like that show Shark Tank?  Wanna invent your own product someday, or get a job with one of these multi-million dollar companies that get funded?

One of those companies to receive funding from their appearance on Shark Tank is  Guardian Bikes. They use ROBO3D desktop printers to take their prototyping process from $820 per part with two weeks of production time to $19 per part with one day of production time.  This allows for much more flexibility, iteration, and ultimately a better, safer bike.

“With a 3D printer you can go through five or six iterations in a couple of days,” says co-founder Brian Riley. “That same process would have taken three months without it.”

Meanwhile back in middle school, the earlier you learn about the joys and pitfalls of product design, the better.  One of my favorite examples of using 3D design and 3D printing for multidisciplinary projects is Jefferson Middle School’s Invention Convention.  Students imagine a new product that would solve a problem they are passionate about, and then work on their ideas in multiple classes to come up with a comprehensive presentation.

They design their solution in Tinkercad and 3D print a prototype, which they test and iterate on until it’s just right.  They work on their elevator pitch and marketing copy, and gain relevant life-skills that can be applied to any career by creating a video commercial and a website. They then present their invention to professionals from the community at an evening event at the school where the best products are given top awards, and outstanding portions of presentations are recognized for excellence.

Special Effects for TV and Movies

Frank Ippolito is a professional prop and costume maker in North Hollywood, California, and frequent contributor to Adam Savage’s Tested.com.  His company, Thingergy Inc., designs and 3D prints prototypes and final parts for props and costumes used in film, television, museums, and special events.

Frank Ippolito uses 3D printing to make silicone molds for masks and props
Frank Ippolito uses 3D printing to make silicone molds for masks and props

“3D printing has become a much-used tool in the toolbox at our shop," explains Ippolito. “It has enabled us to work faster and more efficiently on projects for our clients.  Sometimes its prototyping out a part for a TV show just to get feedback or design notes, sometimes its making 30 finished props over the weekend for use on set.  Sometimes we just don't have enough hands in the shop and our robot minions fill in."


Not everyone can get their hands on a 2 million year old fossil, but with 3D printing, archaeologists all over the world can reap the benefits of major discoveries from any successful dig no matter where they are made, and contribute their own analysis and findings to the archeological community.

Darryl Ricketts, an Adjunct Anthropology Instructor at Indiana University, is translating 3D scans of ancient skull artifacts into .stl files that his students can print in the classroom for more hands-on learning.  It all started when a 2 million year old fossil of an early human was discovered in cave system outside of Johannesburg. Researchers put 3D scans of the fossils online, so Darryl got himself a 3D printer, and started making replicas for his classroom.

With these replicas, students can validate findings like volume metrics on their own, and get a better understanding of how fossils are retrieved.  When students can literally get their hands on the latest developments in their field, they can immediately be incorporated into potentially life-changing research.


The automotive industry has been using additive manufacturing since its inception in the 1980s, and knowing how to operate massive $50,000 - $1,000,000 machines is a great skill to bring into the job market.

But manufacturing is changing.  Major companies like Volkswagon are seeing how desktop 3D printers like the $3549 Ultimaker 3 are a useful, low-cost way for engineers to not only prototype ideas before throwing them on the more expensive machines, but also to design and print useable custom parts like gauges, jigs and fixtures.  VW has reported a 91% cost reduction and 95% time savings by creating custom parts for their assembly line, and by using the printers to repair fragile parts of tools that break, instead of suffering the cost (and downtime) to replace the entire tool.

3D printed wheel protection jig. Photo courtesy of Ultimaker
3D printed wheel protection jig. Photo courtesy of Ultimaker

Volkswagon estimates that since introducing these desktop 3D printers to their workflow in 2014, they have saved more than 150,000 EUR, (appx $180,000 US) and expect to save more than 250,000 EUR every year.

This is not only the same desktop FDM (FFF) technology being introduced in K-12 classrooms, but exactly the same machines and software students are using.  This is why it’s important.

Entrepreneurial Efforts

What we are seeing right now is the democratization of product design and manufacturing.  Anyone with access to a computer and a 3D printer (home, school, public library, etc.) can make their crazy idea into reality through CAD, do small production runs on desktop 3D printers or 3D Carvers, and open up an Etsy shop to promote and sell their product.

When he was 14 years old, Finn Callaghan started designing his own fidget spinners using popsicle sticks and duct tape.  After getting an Inventables Carvey 3D carver, he launched Alpine Spin Co. out of his home garage, proving that anyone with a good idea, a YouTube channel, and the right technology can get a business going.

Fidget Spinner designed by Finn Callaghan. Photo courtesy of Inventables.
Fidget Spinner designed by Finn Callaghan. Photo courtesy of Inventables.


These are just a few of the more recent stories that I’ve heard about the current needs for 3D design and 3D printing skills in the workforce.  I do hope that they inspire you to ask around and find even more examples in your local economy.  Keep an eye on the MatterHackers YouTube channel for more stories about businesses using 3D printing for practical production.  And next time someone asks why teaching 3D printing and 3D design in schools is important, you know what to say.  Jobs.  


David Escobar:


Faulkner Industrial:


Daryl Ricketts:




Guardian Bikes:




Tim Minshall:


Finn Callaghan