3D Printing For Kids

My daughter first got the idea into her head about a 3D Printer a couple years ago. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but when a friend of hers brought a little plastic character that his dad had printed, had to have been close. For the last two years, she’s lamented the fact that she didn’t have enough money, nor enough ways to earn money, to purchase her own 3D Printer. All of that changed this Christmas.

3D Printers for Kids

I’m a computer guy. These days I do web development and other programming, and a decade ago, I was a pretty high-end systems administrator. There aren’t many computer things that I can’t get working. So, it was with some confidence that me and 10 dove into the world of 3D printing. But, it’s tougher than it looks. It took eight tries just to get the Z-level right, and we didn’t even know what a Z-level was when we started.

xyz jr 3d printer
Just started printing a 3D Dalek. That blue stuff is the bottom layer.

We watched a couple Youtube videos (that helps more than you might think), read the pathetically small instructions, set the Z-height, loaded some filament, and after a few false starts, we were off to 3D printing. That afternoon she started making her own models using software we just downloaded a few minutes earlier. Turns out Dad isn’t the only one who is good at computers 🙂

By the time Christmas Break was over, she had 3D printed gifts for all of her friends.

What Is 3D Printing Like

I’m going to crank out a small manual or series of articles about 3D printing and how it works because there isn’t much out there aimed at parents of kids who are into 3D printing.

First, thing is first. 3D Printing is NOT like regular printing. These are not nearly the error-free laser printer type machines that plug and play on your desk and can be expected to crank out hundreds of copies without a paper jam or other issue. In fact, as you research actual 3D Printing sources, you’ll come to find out that a 3D printer is much more of a workshop device. A tool that you have to work with, calibrate and understand. Even then, there are going to be errors.

This is good news, because while we had some early success with the XYZ Jr. 3D Printer that she got, we had plenty of errors too. Just enough to worry that maybe this was a mistake, and maybe $300-level 3D Printers just weren’t worth it. Turns out that people with $3,000 3D printers have the same issues, from prints that don’t stick properly to the printing bed, to clogged extruders.

I can’t say which 3D printer is best for kids, because this one that Santa brought is the only one I’ve ever used, but so far, I’d have to say it has been up to the task. It’s important to remember that this isn’t about printing flawless artifacts that can be sold in New York boutiques, but rather about cranking out a plastic model of whatever your heart desires. When you focus on custom, anything goes, and less on flawless production, your experiences will be much better.

To 3D print something, you load a string (for lack of a better word) of plastic into a feeder. The printer heats up and melts that plastic as it comes out a tiny tube. Then, the print bed moves back and forth, while the print head moves side to side. Think of laying down tiny strings of plastic over and over to build up the shape, and that’s something of the idea.

To make this work, you need a digital 3D model which you can create in different software. Then, you need to “slice” that model using software that matches your 3D printer. Then, you copy that file to the memory card, and then use the buttons to select what you want to print. You can also connect it to your computer, but that doesn’t save you much effort.

So, far, my daughter has figured out the basic software, downloaded basic models, and constructed her own. She’s also run into the first of what I’m sure will be many tricky problems such as why certain things get “fixed” and the left off of printouts, and why we seems to be stuck at a certain height before errors occur.

I’ll write up some more details as I figure them out, and get the chance. In the meantime,  the most important thing out of all of this is that what we really ended up with is a fun, technical challenge that presents real world problems, troubleshooting, and rewards. This thing sitting on her desk is probably worth a year of so-called STEM education.

If you have the means, and an interested child, I highly recommend it.


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