By Shawn Grimes –  @shawng on Twitter

3D Printing is one of the most impactful tools we have at the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center (@DHFBaltimore). It is easily one of the most popular technologies that our youth like to work with but it’s usefulness expands beyond just 3D design. Our tech center has been open for just under a year and the amount of youth I have seen transformed by the opportunities provided by affordable 3D printing technologies is amazing.

(Check out this pic of the mayor of Baltimore, MD checking out a Printrbot with Shawn Grimes)

The Youth

I have seen youth who were quiet and unremarkable become some of the most popular and influential students in our space. In a world where consumerism has become so easy, it is rare to have a full understanding of how a tool works or to even try and fix one. That is where I see the strongest benefit of going with a Printrbot kit. When I see youth build one of these kits, the look in their eyes when they complete it and it prints for the first time is nothing but pure confidence. Even if the first “blob” doesn’t turn out the way they expected, they know they can tweak and fix it. They know how the tool works and how they can fix it or even make it better. The youth feels accomplished and special because there are very few people in everyday life who can say they built a 3D printer.

The Hardware

We have one Makerbot Replicator 2 in our tech center as well. This was the first 3D printer we purchased. It was expensive ($2,000+), limited (it will only print PLA filament) and while it works for the most part, when it breaks (about once every two weeks), it’s a nightmare to figure out how to repair it. We now have 3 Printrbot models in our space (not including the one that I have personally bought and bring to the space at times) and these are by far my favorite machines. They malfunction about as often as the much more expensive Makerbot but for the price of one Makerbot, I can have 6 Printrbot Simples and rotate them around as I need to tend to them. Not to mention, my youth and I both know how to troubleshoot them and the wealth of community support through forums like Printrbottalk.com, means I can usually find the answer in minutes rather than waiting for a support ticket to be responded to.

Another benefit to Printrbot kits specifically, is the “upgradeability” factor. The controller board and motors are the same parts used on their larger Printrbot Plus kits, so you can start with a Printrbot Simple kit and upgrade your way to a Printrbot Plus by building a new frame and buying common items from a hardware store. There are also a ton of upgrades that you can 3D print from sites like www.thingiverse.com so the possibilities are near endless.

The Products

The benefits of 3D printing reach far beyond 3d printing itself. We have printed replacement parts and upgrades for CNC machines, custom tools, closet organizers, door stops, keychains, gifts, holiday ornaments, decorations, cookie cutters, business card holders, and so much more. We have integrated 3D printing into our everyday life and projects. Need a humane mouse trap, let’s print one! Want a cookie cutter that spells out your name, print one! Want to make a business card holder for that generous donor, print one! Broke a pair of scissors, print a new handle!

Final Thoughts

Make no mistake, 3D printing in 2013 is not “plug and play”. But if you want to develop grit, determination, creativity, problem solving, and confidence in youth, I can think of no better piece of technology right now than a 3D printer built from a kit. This is not easy, if it was, everyone would be doing it and it wouldn’t be worth doing anymore. The secret though, is it is also not that hard anymore and with kits like the Printrbot you can do it for a low investment with a very high return!