Designing the perfect 3D printing curriculum

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that you have at least a passing interest in 3D printing. I’m also willing to bet that you’d like to get better at it. But what kind of programs and information are out there to help you brush up your skills? Stick with me and I’ll not only set the scene for why it may be important for you to begin investigating a personal formal, informal, or combined learning program, I’ll also give you a leg up on the type of programs and content that's out there to help you.


Since you’re here, there’s a strong likelihood that you know how to use CAD. Try and contain your shock, but this gives you an enormous leg up on those starting from scratch.

Why? Let’s say you’ve finally found the time to print that double-reducing half bagel pipe fitting that your mom’s always wanted. If you can’t find the file on GrabCAD or Thingiverse, and don’t already know CAD, allow me to walk you through the process:

  1. Learn CAD
  2. Achieve spiritual enlightenment
  3. Design the pipe fitting
  4. Print the pipe fitting

There’s a lot going on in numbers 2-4, so if you can skip learning CAD, life can’t be all bad. Right?

At this point you’ve achieved spiritual enlightenment (congratulations!), designed the pipe fitting, and now you’re ready to print. Could you just start messing around with the desktop printer that you put on your credit card last week? Yes, of course. Sometimes that’s even encouraged. No one here is going to dissuade you from hands on, trial and error learning. By all means, get after it.

But is that going to impress your mom (or your boss)? Perhaps more importantly, is that going to prepare you to have a substantive conversation with your company’s shop manager/rapid prototyping Zen master when he tells you that although you’ve created a very nice piece of plumbing art, the design is unprintable? Maybe. Maybe not.

So, what now? How can you better prepare yourself?

If we take our cues from the time you spent first learning CAD, it was a healthy mix of structured learning in conjunction with, not instead of, self-directed learning. A little something like this, depending on how old you were:

  1. on the job, not long after its invention
  2. on the job and in the deep end, desperately trying not to sink
  3. in college, only to find out on the job that they didn’t teach you nearly enough*

* I left out “in my house at 3AM because I love computers and geometry” because it didn’t fit with my “on the job” trope. But I know you’re out there, and I do appreciate you. I do sit next to Blake, after all.

Why should design for modern 3D printing be any different? Why wouldn’t you take your cues from institutions of higher learning where solid DFAM foundations are being taught in a structured learning format?

My favorite AM curriculum belongs to Christopher Williams at Virginia Tech and Carolyn Conner Seepersad at UT Austin. They lay it out really well in Design for Additive Manufacturing Curriculum: A Problem and Project-Based Approach using the following modules:

  • Identifying Opportunities: In this module, students learn about the types of applications for which AM is best suited. Students are introduced to techniques for identifying AM product development opportunities and customer needs.
  • AM Project Planning and Economics: Students learn project planning and cost estimation techniques. Specific to AM, they discuss the impact of the digital manufacturing paradigm.
  • AM Concept Generation: In this module, students learn concept generation techniques and learn to employ idea generators that are unique to AM (e.g., customization, low-volume production, assembly reduction, and complex geometry).
  • AM Embodiment Design: Students learn how best to design the structure of their product for AM in this module. Considerations of AM tolerancing for various part features (e.g., through holes, snap-fits, living hinges, etc.) are explored.
  • AM Detailed Design: Content in this module is focused in AM common build strategies (and potential errors) caused by part orientation, poor interlayer bonding, and resolution limitations of various AM technologies.

And, perhaps most importantly (and getting back to the unfortunate issue in our double-reducing half bagel pipe fitting story),

...instead of rote learning AM process specifications, students actively explore the technology limitations by designing and measuring a part for benchmarking one of three metrics: resolution, accuracy, or surface finish. The part is to be designed to enable students to observe the effects of potential sources of AM build error (e.g., orientation, presence of support material, layer thickness, etc.) on the chosen metric.

Naturally, it would be ideal if we could all go back to school and brush up on whatever emerging technology most applies to us and our professional lives. But we’re busy. And being a busy professional may mean that the work of researching and studying according to existing curriculums and areas of interest will rest squarely on your shoulders - probably in your house at 3am. Even if you can go back to school, once you’ve finished your more general studies, you can move on to something that is more focused. But what's out there, you ask?

  • Professional web tutorials: Stratasys happens to have a pretty robust e-learning site. There’s even materials for an entire college-level course available for free. Naturally the content is specific to Stratasys hardware, but there are worse things.
  • Short courses: Take, for example, MIT’s additive manufacturing short course: "This course will be useful to design engineers, manufacturing engineers, product designers, research engineers, research scientists, managers, VPs of product development and manufacturing." Well isn’t that convenient? It’s like they know you, you hardworking engineer, scientist, manager, or VP.
  • Certificate programs: NYU pioneered the 3D printing certificate program a couple of years ago, with four courses offered from the Professional Studies program. Now, there are certificate programs offered across the US and Europe.

Now go forth and print stuff.


A Part Number Anthology part-number-anthology-small

Part numbering. For most engineers, this two-word phrase is all it takes to conjure up especially strong feelings about what it means to be “right”, and what it means to be very, very “wrong.” We've assembled a handful of our part number greatest hits in this eBook anthology.