Reprap Style 3d Printing and the College Level Scientific Method

Reprap style 3d printing in college

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The point of 3d printing for college students is not to make more Star Wars figurines, the point is to reinforce academic principals such as the scientific method and computer coding.  When students use low cost, “homebrewed” Reprap or Repstrap style 3d printers to create objects of their choosing, each and every failure is an opportunity to deploy the scientific method.  Reprap style 3d printers are learning tools that are dripping self-motivated objectives and demonstrable successes.  When a 3d printed Kylo Ren mask fails for on a rep rap style 3d printer in a college student’s dorm room or in a 3d printing lab, the first thing to do IS NOT to clean the glass off and start again.  The first thing to do is ask Why?  Why did the print fail in the first place?

failed 3d print
Finger digger first edition failed print.

Why did my print fail?

Prints fail for so many reasons, and college students who engage in Reprap style 3d printing eventually learn all sorts reasons why this happens.  The first step is to consider the results of the failure, is the Star Wars object just a partial remaining object, very clean, infill showing, apparently smooth operating print until something happened, or is it a birds nest with filament all over the place?  The answer to this question leads the learner down two distinctly different paths.  If the partial print is reasonably solid there could be any number of logical explanations including but not limited to: power outage, filament exhaustion and hot end jams.  If there is a bird’s nest, there are any number of possible explanations as well, over extrusion, under extrusion, mechanical misalignment or retraction settings.

In order for the college student to assure the success of printing their Star Wars figurine, she/he must go through each one of these possibilities and mentally test each one.  This is the second part of the scientific method, see how that works?  Each and every possibility must be placed in the form of a mental question, Did I run out of filament?  Did I lose power?  Do I have a mechanical alignment or construction related problem?  Asking questions in search of a solution to observable phenomenon is the second step in the scientific method.

Forming Hypothesis – Scientific Method

Next a college student must allow themselves to narrow down each possibility en route to forming a hypothesis.  Did I lose power?  Perhaps the information on the LCD can give me information about that, did I lose filament?  I can check the roll to answer that question, is there a mechanical problem?  I can check my drive systems, connections and motors to inform that possibility.

Repeatability and Reliability

With each step or check of a possible failure, the student is learning more and more about repeatability, and reliability because when a possible failure is examined it informs the learner about its reliability at the same time.  For example, every time I check my e3d hot end, I see filament oozing out of the top of it, maybe I need to figure out how to handle a piece of hot metal in such a way as to tighten it reliably and get the operation that I am looking for.  The student/learner has to take a role in their own success in rep rap style printing.

Next after the possibilities have been evaluated and excluded or included in a hypothesis, he learner then proceeds to test each hypothesis.  The hypothesis testing can take a number of forms, examination of the firmware code, dismantling structural or output parts, measuring currents, observing the operation of motors, feeling for overheated computer components and considering issues such as hot end and heat bed operation, reliability, and settings.

Hypothesis Testing

Once the hypothesis testing has concluded, and the learner has determined that they have addressed at least one source of the failure, the next step is to conduct an experiment.  This presents a series of decisions.  Does the learner experiment with a full size trial objet?  Does she/he print a ubiquitous Benchy?  Perhaps a test cube, or maybe even a scaled down version of the intended object. Either way, when the operator decides on an experiment to conduct, she/he must then look at the resulting objects and draw a conclusion.

The final step of the scientific method, analyzing data and drawing conclusions is full of options as well.  First of course is the success, “It worked, now I have a BB-9E robot model that I can show off!”  Then there is of course the failure the, observations, questions, and hypothesis that were tested were all the wrong ones and the process starts again.  The failures in 3d printing are where the value of rep rap style printing presents itself.  When the college student is motivated enough, and they have explored possible alternative hypotheses, that student will test those hypotheses again and again until the right solution has been delivered.

3d printed children's toy
Successful print of finger digger version 2.


To experienced 3d printing enthusiasts, this seems like just another day with the hobby, but for a young adult, in a 21st century world, there are a limited number of platforms that will deliver the same sort of lock step hypothesis testing.  For example, the maintained Honda Accord always starts when you get in it, the virus free computer always turns on and returns a signal from the internet, the microwave oven always heats the hot pockets to perfection and the television always tunes in the latest version of mindless sitcom.  Reprap style 3d printing is the among the only activities that college students can engage in problem solving behavior on their own time, with self-guided operation, and is therefore exceptionally valuable (in its current form) to developing proficiency in the scientific method for college students.

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  1. Tom Baxter says

    Very good article Lawrence. I never thought about it, but you are exactly right! Working through the failures when 3D printing is a great example of applying the Scientific Method. Bonus: 3D printing provides a myriad of fails to test!

    The only point I would have to argue is that the microwave never heats the hot pocket to perfection. Unless by perfection, you actually mean some quasi-quantum hot pocket superposition that is both frozen solid and face-meltingly hot at the same time.

  2. Richard Bynum says

    This could be the perfect add for parents to buy their college kid a 3D printer! “They’ll learn how to evaluate a problem and fix it on their own.” I was into 3D printers about a year and a half before I got one and in all that time I tried to learn all I could about them by reading all the info I came across! But nothing beats having the 3D printer in front of you! Learning by doing is the best way with 3D printing. Or it is/was in my case!

    1. Tom Baxter says

      Richard, My 17 year old son has always wanted to be an engineer , but 13 year old daughter has become so much more interested in coding, CAD, etc. now that I have a 3D printer. She finally saw a connection between the “nerdy stuff” that my son and I liked so much, with the cool stuff she liked. I have actually caught her playing around with Tinkercad on her own. If 3D printing can be used as the “gateway drug” to get more kids into STEM fields, I am all for it!

  3. Justin Flugum says

    Yes, that is exactly what I did this last semester at the college I attend. The original plan was to clone a Prusa I3 MK2S to the best I could with Chinese parts in the Rep-rap style. I got a lot of information off of youtube and Tom Sanladerer. The thing is you never know what you’re going to run into, I had Hot end Jams, Bad filament, a broken control board, bad writing in the firmware, layer skips, you name it I had it. What this did for me is give me a clear understanding of what can and will happen along with how to fix the problems. This inspired me to try something new and bigger by creating my own design this time using fusion 360 for every part. I’m building it large and like a tank with precision ball screws and Ultimaker mechanics.

  4. Chris says

    That’s a great article and it’s a very good point. Since I started with reprap style printer, it’s been a constant learning process and I get some saturation from doing a root cause analysis on my print failures to seek out the potential cause. Every time a print fails, I learn a little (or a lot) more..

    1. Chris says

      Satisfaction, not saturation

  5. Sumit Trivedi says

    This article is a great problem-solver, especially for the RepRap style 3D printing. And the college-goers would love the way the solutions are offered. Great job Lawrence!

  6. Shane reid says


  7. ChickenMobile says

    Literally everything we do, we learn from our mistakes – though might want to start off with small failure to avoid costly materials ;).

  8. Henry Qiu says

    Sweet tip

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