To be honest, 3D printing isn’t anything new: The technology has existed for more than 30 years. What makes the idea of being able to “print” 3D objects, however, has become more exciting as it becomes more accessible. In recent years, plummeting costs and better availability has made 3D printing more of a reality for organizations and individuals alike. But what does it mean for eLearning and training? You might be surprised at how 3D printing can make for more effective learning and development.

What 3D Printing Can (and Can’t) Do

There’s been a little confusion surrounding 3D printing and what it can actually accomplish. Yes, it can effectively print 3D objects based on files created by the user. No, it’s not a machine that can make bacon anytime you want.

In order to be effective, a file first has to be created that effectively tells the printer how to make each paper-thin layer of the desired object, which means files must be painstakingly modeled first in a program like SketchUp and AutoDesk. There are file-sharing sites like Thingiverse, which allow you to choose pre-designed files for 3D printers.

3D Printing at Work

If and when you have the capacity to design your own 3D print models, 3D printing can have a number of different applications in a workplace training or L&D setting. Consider the following scenarios and how they could be used in your own eLearning programs:

  • The prototype for a new product is “printed,” so learners can experience the way it looks and feels during a training session.
  • A hands-on learning activity is enhanced by the availability of a printed model, such as medical board learning about a new procedure using a cross-section of a heart.
  • A central file is created for all eLearning applications. On their own time, learners print out the model of a product and can examine the way it works in a hands-on environment.
  • A 3D model is blended with other types of learning – think classroom-based training combined with a take-home module – to further enhance eLearning.
  • Learners are challenged to create a better version of the wheel, using 3D printing as a way to brainstorm or work as a group to come up with a prototype or object that solves a certain problem.

Naturally, the way 3D printing is applied depends heavily upon the organization. And, without sounding like an 80’s after-school special, the possibilities are endless.

Why is 3D printing only hitting its stride now, when it’s been available for decades? The cost of ownership, paired with availability and layman’s technology means 3D printing is infinitely more accessible than it was in past years. Pair that with the development of applications specifically designed with 3D printing in mind, and 3D printing has become less of a futuristic feature and more of a modern must-have.

It’s true that we’re still just scratching the surface with 3D printing. New software and materials can make the technology even more applicable to eLearning, so long as professionals are willing to think outside of the inkjet and put 3D printing to work.