Abingdon School UK Teaches 21st Century Skills With MakerBot 3D Printers

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Preparing students with the knowledge, skills, and resilience to embrace their future has always been at the crux of Abingdon School, an independent day and boarding school for boys, in Oxfordshire, England.

The school’s Design and Technology department offers a range of product design courses that aim to develop students’ technical knowledge and proficiencies. 3D modeling and design are taught alongside traditional manufacturing methods using woods, metals, and polymers.

As schools look to bridge the skills gap in the workforce, 21st century skills like 3D design, design thinking, and CAD will be more critical now than ever before. By the time students complete their schooling, they will have developed technical and cognitive skills that give them an advantage when entering university.

“Throughout the A-Level course, we try to give them lots of opportunities to build upon their learnings, which are more in line with the first year of university than the last year of secondary education,” said Dan Hughes, Head of Design and Technology at Abingdon School. “Our students use [Autodesk] Fusion 360, and those that study the subject at university tell us that their CAD abilities are more developed than their peers because of the foundation that they’ve gained from the school – they understand what is feasible and what can be done. We would like to think that we prepare them quite well for that next stage.”

Abingdon School expands its 3D printing resources with MakerBot METHOD and SKETCH 3D printers
Abingdon School expands its 3D printing resources with MakerBot METHOD and SKETCH 3D printers

The school’s repertoire of MakerBot 3D printers has been particularly useful when teaching 3D modeling, digital design, and rapid prototyping. The school started with the original Replicator 10 years ago and has accumulated several models over the years, including the Replicator 2, Replicator+, Replicator Mini, SKETCH, and METHOD X 3D printers.

“When we bought the Replicator series, it gave students more exposure to the technology, which resulted in increased interest and use,” said Hughes. “Rapid prototyping used to be a tool that only a limited group of pupils had access to. The increase in the number of machines now means students of all ages have direct access to the printers and are able to realize their designs more rapidly.”

With additional SKETCH 3D printers at their disposal, student workflow and productivity have drastically improved
With additional SKETCH 3D printers at their disposal, student workflow and productivity have drastically improved

As more students started to use the printers, Abingdon wanted to increase the speed and volume with which they could process jobs and had to upgrade to the next level. They were in the market for a printer that was easy to use, reliable, and classroom-friendly.

“One of the main reasons we went with the MakerBot SKETCH was because of its enclosed build area and additional safety features. Unlike other 3D printing solutions, MakerBot addressed our H&S concerns,” said Hughes. “In our efforts to meet the CLEAPSS standard for safe and practical 3D printing in schools in the UK, we found that SKETCH met our needs. Its enclosed chamber, built-in particulate filters, and non-toxic materials make it ideal to use in our classrooms.”


“Having multiple SKETCH printers at our disposal has been a huge benefit, improving our workflow and productivity,” commented Hughes. “Although the printer is small and compact, we’ve been very impressed with its reliability. The smaller build volume also forces students to be more considerate with what they design. It makes them approach their designing with a little more care and creativity and ask themselves: is this the best use of material, space, and time?”

This not only helps students to think differently, but also reduces the amount of material waste that would be produced throughout the design and testing phase.

“As an output for the volume of prints that we do, SKETCH does really well. Since we returned to face to face teaching in the spring, the machines have been running fairly constantly throughout the day. And they’re quiet – this means that you can have a bank of them in the classroom and not be distracted by them at all,” added Hughes.

Student uses MakerBot CloudPrint to slice, preview, and send his design to print
Student uses MakerBot CloudPrint to slice, preview, and send his design to print

When starting on a project, most of the younger students will begin modeling their idea in cardboard or foam. Then they move their idea into CAD, refine the design, and then print it on SKETCH to test out how their concept looks or how a component may function in physical form. Once they’re comfortable with their design, they move on to the next part of the process for the final form, whether that be advanced 3D printing, CNC machining, milling, or casting.

This ability to design, test, and iterate gives students the comfort to fail and try again as often as they need without the concern of extended wait times between iterations.

“SKETCH is easy to use for beginners and intermediate 3D printing users. It provides the reliability, security, and confidence that may be overwhelming with more advanced printers like METHOD, where students would need to have an awareness of the manufacturing process and a greater understanding of material properties and their choice for a particular application,” Hughes continued.

3D printing allows students to seamlessly print, test, and iterate on their designs
3D printing allows students to seamlessly print, test, and iterate on their designs

Students have been using SKETCH to print for a range of applications, whether it’s for a project, for fun, or to better familiarize themselves with the technology. Students would prepare their files on MakerBot CloudPrint, upload them to the print queue, where the teacher would then deploy them up, and when the prints are done, go pick them up directly from the printers. “The development of MakerBot CloudPrint has revolutionized the efficiency of the way in which we print. All members of the department are able to monitor the queue and prioritize print jobs with ease.”

While SKETCH has proven itself to be reliable, some of the older students are eager to begin using the department’s new METHOD X 3D printer. The department’s design studio is set up with several MakerBot 3D printers and a laser cutter to allow students to produce at any level or complexity they want.

“METHOD will provide us with the ability to take our output to the next level of complexity,” Hughes stated. “The way that I see it working is that SKETCH is our workhorse – running all day long with all year groups, producing first refinement of a component. When students get to the stage when their part is working then we’ll move to METHOD for the final production.”


“More is going to be done with 3D printing within schools – and cross-departmentally. We are already seeing different uses in physics, chemistry, and geography. It won’t just be limited to the Design and Technology department,” said Hughes.

For one geography project, students printed 3D reliefs of mountain ranges in order to explore contours in a more hands on visual way that students were able to interact with. Students also produced replicas of chemical bonds for chemistry, where they printed different modules and produced cell structures that ultimately needed to be bolted together.

“One of the issues that we have had to overcome, as we have placed more emphasis on 3D printing, is ensuring that both pupils and school leadership understand the benefits and freedom that additive manufacture offers us. It was important to ensure that they were aware of the rigorous application of knowledge and skills needed, and how it would complement and enhance the delivery of the subject in order to justify the significant investment of both time and money.

“The limitation of how useful a technology such as 3D printing is for us, has been the limitation of the skills of our students in CAD. Once they are more proficient in CAD, then they can apply that to other manufacturing methods like 3D printing or laser cutting. With limited CAD skills, you’re limiting what can be done in the next stage of production, and students are forced to turn to Open Source websites to download 3D models” Hughes noted.

The Design and Technology department has placed significant importance in embedding CAD skills at the beginning of any student’s time at the school and then building upon those skills each year. As a result, this allows students to produce more challenging and useful prints—successfully.

3D printing has become an integral part of our delivery of Design and Technology across all school years. It has not replaced our emphasis on students developing knowledge and understanding of material properties, design and traditional manufacture, but instead has allowed our students to choose the most appropriate manufacturing method to fully realize their creative potential.

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