3D Printing Teacher of the Year – Exclusive Interview With Philip Cotton

Founder of the 3dfilemarket.com, an online community to download and share 3D printing designs and to promote 3dprinting, Philip Cotton is a teacher consultant for BBC learning who teaches design and technology at the UK Ladybridge High School. Philip Cotton was one of the first teachers in the United Kingdom to introduce 3D printing in the classroom. For the second year in a row, Cotton recently won the 3D Printshow 2014’s Educational Excellence Award for his services to education.

Recently we’ve learned that Ladybridge High School’s students had created 3D printed lamps for their GCSE examination. Philip Cotton has been working closely with students teaching them to design and print models. Thea results were outstanding and students were awarded some of the highest marks that the teacher has ever given. The lamps were later on displayed at the school’s annual Arts, Products and Textiles exhibition.

Philip Cotton’s 3D printing contribution to education is already yielding positive results. Some of his students are having their designs published on websites and are using YouTube to train others.

– Why is the new generation so important?

The new generation is extremely important as today’s children will be tomorrows future engineers/designers in 3D printing. If we don’t educate our school children in this technology then they will get left behind in the global economy of 3dprinting in the future. We are educating children for technology jobs that do not exist at the moment so we have to prepare them as well as possible, and that means educating them on the latest available technology in 3dprinting.

– How is 3D printing accessible to children?

3Dprinting is accessible to children through many different avenues. The first and most important should be in schools where children can use the technology to design and make objects or prototypes in technology lessons. Also at home is a great place for learning with 3dprinting. When parents buy 3D printers to tinker and make things, undoubtedly children will take an interest. Children are naturally inquisitive and given access to the technology they will show an interest and be engaged with it.

– From which age can we really give children access to 3D printing?

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For safety reasons, unsupervised it should be 14 years old, while supervised, any young age. 3D printers are amazing but they can be dangerous if children mess around with them. They have extremely hot extruders that can cause extreme burns and also moving carriages that can cause injury if children get their fingers trapped in them. You can teach children about 3D printing from any age and the younger the better, however I do feel that they should be supervised when using the machines for their own safety.

– What took you to create the http://www.3dfilemarket.com?

I decided to create the 3dfilemarket after using cubify for about a year. I hosted my designs on their platform and people started paying to download and 3dprint them. However cubify ended their open marketplace and I had nowhere to sell my designs. So I decided to set up the 3dfilemarket. I hosted my own designs and then other users started to add their own designs, both for free and for a download fee. All the designs are checked for print-ability and if there is no photo of the actual printed outcome then it will not appear on the site.

– Is your Business Model only based on the exchange of 3D printing designs that you select?

The website is based on exchanging STL files. I don’t select them but I moderate them. The reason is for good design. The idea is to keep all the designs printable. Every design that is uploaded to the website is checked for print-ability. This is to ensure that users have a smooth and positive experience when using the 3dfilemarket. If there is no proof of printability then it will not appear on the site.

– Why don’t you accept any CAD screen shots in your website?

If you create your design in CAD, no matter how complex your design is, it doesn’t mean that it can be 3D printed. If you create a file to upload onto the 3dfilemarket, and especially to sell it, you need proof that it can be 3D printed on a desktop 3D printer like Makerbot, Ultimaker or Solidoodle. If designs where allowed on the site that had not been checked for print-ability then the people could be paying for copies of designs that do not print and this wouldn’t be good. If you buy a copy of a designer’s work then you expect that what you pay for is proven to be printable.c

– But there are so many more models that are free than paid.

This is true and the great thing about 3D printing at the moment is so many good designs are free to download and 3D print. Some designers add a download fee to their work and that is entirely their choice to do that. It’s like the app store or Google Play Store, when you download apps, some are free and some are paid, the concept is the same. I don’t have an issue with paying for good design as I feel that good designers should be rewarded for their talents. When MP3s first came out they were all free to download and file sharing was common, now ten years later paying $1.00 for an MP3 is the norm and everyone excepts it. The artists get rewarded for their work.

– What do you think about the open source model? Do you think it is sustainable?

Open Source is great because everyone shares ideas and makes technology better. Open source is good for getting ideas out there and for developing technology. But there comes a point when the technology becomes so valuable and addvanced that companies are reluctant to share their secrets of their work so they stop being open source to protect themselves financially. If you think about Apple, they guard their technology to the highest level as their platform is so valuable, if they were open source and shared all their technology to everyone, their designs would be copied and cheaper models would be released and ultimately Apple would suffer as a company. Also if technologists are developing software for free and then companies embrace this software when selling printers, should the developers not be rewarded for their work, as open source software can be an extremely valuable asset to a printer company selling printers who have not developed their own software.

– How do you imagine design copyrights in the future?

In the future I expect the 3D printing process to be more streamlined with direct printing ability that cuts out the need to slice the models. On top of this will be the ability to stream prints directly to 3D Printers using wireless technology, it would simply be a file-print option. I think hobbiests who are designing for fun will not be worried about releasing their STL files for download. However top designers will want their work protected. I have had enquires from some of the top 3D print designers in the world who will not share their STL files due to the risk of them being copied and shared without their consent. Some top designers have insisted on a model where their designs are streamed to the printer and the print code is good for only one print, so the user will only be able to print one copy of the design. I personally don’t see an issue with this, however the designs have to be proven printable and the technology needs to be to a point where printers are 100% reliable in that when you print an object you know it will print and there is no risk of print failure. At the moment 3D printing can be quite ‘clunkly’ in that sometimes prints fail for various reasons e.g. don’t stick to the print bed, warping issues, printer extruder gets clogged with plastic etc. All these things need to be ironed out before we can get to a point where streaming of files is commonplace. At the moment STL is the best option with the current level of technology that the printers offer. Maybe FDM is not the final answer for 3D printing?

– The 3D printing process is still very complicated for beginners!

Yes, it is very complicated. If you download an STL file, you can’t print that STL file. You have to slice the STL file into layers so that the printer can understand how to print the design. You need separate software for that, which creates a print code called the G-Code. For example, Makerbot’s slicing software is Makerware, Ultimaker’s is Cura and Solidoodle has open source software Repetier Host. Without the slicing software, you can’t print. As mentioned above the easiest way would be to have a ‘direct’ print option, but the technology needs to advance further.

Philip Cotton, Seated, with Students

Philip Cotton also recommended Bonnie Roskes’ ‘Modelling with Sketchup‘ for 3dprinting.  As always you may head over to the 3D Printing & Education forum at 3DPB.com to discuss this story and others related to the education space with our community.

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