Education and Research

Quick study: Additive manufacturing in education & research

By Infinite Editorial Team
Read more
Image Alt Text

Part IV of this four-part series looks at how 3D printing is used in classrooms and labs to turn ideas into reality.

Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, plays an ever-expanding role in education and research. In the classroom and the lab, ideas can go from the abstract to the tangible with 3D printed parts. And as more brands look for ways to demonstrate new products or innovate existing ones, they’re partnering with research labs and universities to discover use cases and prove out theoretical applications as real-world solutions.


Here are some of the ways AM is being used for education and research today, and what we can expect to see in the near future.

Additive manufacturing helps fill in STEM skills gap

In K–12, trade, and college classrooms around the world, 3D printing is a valued tool for learning and skills development in science, technology, engineering, and math —collectively known as STEM — curriculum.


Although careers founded on STEM support 69% of the U.S. gross domestic product and $2.3 trillion of annual tax revenue, it’s been widely reported that there’s an enormous shortfall of STEM professionals. Further, STEM occupation growth is expected to hit 8% (more than double the 3.7% projected growth for all other occupations), which will only exacerbate demand.


The pace of STEM education threatens to create an even greater gap, research shows that only 20% of high school graduates have the experience and background to complete STEM courses in college.


But change is coming. Additive manufacturing technologies are playing a much larger role in the classroom, making a significant difference in STEM education. Students use 3D printing and fused filament fabrication (FFF) to create chemistry models, topographic maps, biology artifacts, artwork, and even models of math problems. By bringing AM capabilities to the classroom, educators can foster interest in STEM, introduce new concepts and capabilities, and help set the future for more skilled STEM professionals.


“It’s important to plant the STEM seed while they’re young,” said Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., Chief Operating Officer, Infinite™ Material Solutions. “If you can introduce STEM concepts through additive manufacturing, students can see these concepts come to life. Often, these are the kids who go on to become professionals in the field.”



Fostering 3D printing development in schools

3D printing and FFF hardware are becoming more cost-effective, enabling wider access for students and researchers to create prototypes quickly. In addition, by pairing build materials like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (known as ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA) with water-soluble support materials, such as AquaSys® 120, classrooms and labs can spend less time on post-production duties and overall cleanup. Supports that dissolve in tap water are also eco-friendly and safe for all ages. 


In addition, water-soluble supports remove limitations, empowering students and researchers to enjoy greater design freedom to create more complex objects, such as those with internal cavities, sharp angles, tubes, and intricate features. For just a few examples of what results from unfettered imaginations, see these dog wheelchairs, hovercrafts, surgical models, and 3D-printed organs.

Right now, there are six universities around the world working with our materials in advanced applications.
—Carl Corten, Marketing Manager, Infinite

Doerr said one of the reasons why AM is much more prevalent at the college level than in K–12 schools has to do with budget constraints.


“In grade and middle schools, budgets are tight and often there’s only one 3D printer on-site. But printer labs at the college level are more expansive and get a lot of activity,” he explained. “Also, college labs are usually open systems, making it easier to create prototypes and conduct research.”


For example, at Florida University, members of the College of Engineering and the High-Performance Materials Institute are working with NASA’s Space Technology Research Institute to develop next-generation materials for space. At Clemson University, researchers have partnered with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to develop technologies that aim to accelerate the development of 3D-printed components for vehicles.

Businesses and research partnerships spur 3D printing development

Businesses, too, are partnering in programs that are helping develop ideas in the classroom or lab prior to launching them in the marketplace. Case in point: ExOne has worked with students at the University of Pittsburgh, using 3D printing to explore parts densification and sintering, the findings of which will be presented to the Nuclear Energy University Program, an initiative of the Office of Nuclear Energy.


Doerr said several of his customers are working with universities to complete education and research projects. Students from the University of Colorado are currently using Infinite materials to enable a sophisticated six-axis robot to print with a soluble core application. And a college in Canada is using Infinite products to complete a project for Hutchinson Aerospace.


“Because of the secrecy needed to remain competitive, we don’t necessarily know exactly what the research projects are,” Doerr said. “But this mystery adds another layer of excitement to the field of additive manufacturing.”


Additive manufacturing is also gaining widespread use in research labs. At Argonne, a science and engineering research center located in Illinois, researchers are working with an industrial partner to assist NASA with a new microgravity multiple materials additive manufacturing system. In Tennessee, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest science and energy lab, is using additive manufacturing in research on metal deposition to increase manufacturing energy efficiency.

students holding a 3D-printed object

Degrees from top additive manufacturing universities

As the use of AM grows in aerospace, automotive, healthcare, sports, and more, universities are offering degree programs to match real-world demand. For example, Penn State University offers a Master of Engineering in Additive Manufacturing and Design, while Carnegie Mellon University offers a Master of Science in Additive Manufacturing. MIT, the University of Texas, and Virginia Tech also offer courses in 3D printing.


In addition, AM labs at schools have now become a competitive differentiator in student recruitment.

Additive manufacturing innovation

The boom behind the use of 3D printing, and specifically FFF, points to innovation and savings. Companies leverage AM because it enables lower resource equipment, faster production cycles, and flexible design capabilities when compared to other technologies. And, they promote problem-solving, not just for modern challenges, but for those that have yet to be defined.


Companies like Infinite continue to create industry-first products, such as Caverna™ PP, which offers a unique, microporous morphology that opens up a wide range of possible applications, including shoe components and filters for personal protective equipment.


“From the classroom to the lab, we see innovation take shape with new additive manufacturing materials and technologies,” Doerr said. 

The greatest attribute of additive manufacturing is that what's possible continues to be redefined. Students and researchers will continue to push the limits of what we can do.
— Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., COO for Infinite Material Solutions


Read the rest of this series and learn how additive manufacturing is advancing possibilities in Part I: Automotive, Part II: Aerospace, and Part III: Medical & Dental.

Related resources