Getting Started with 3D Printing (A New Hope): Part 1

Thinking about purchasing a 3D printer to benefit students who are visually impaired?

My name is Neal Mckenzie and I work as an assistive technology specialist for the office of education in the mostly beautiful Sonoma County. I am an Assistive Technology Specialist specifically for the V.I. dept. I started in the field as a paraprofessional for a highly academic Braille student over 8+ years ago and have been consumed by this work ever since. I work with awesome students and an amazing team who both constantly push me to help solve new challenges as it pertains to greater access. Obsessed with creating music, playing tennis and finding new solutions through high and low technology.

We recently went through the process of obtaining a 3D printer. We like many other departments saw the potential in this tool but were completely clueless on the actual process of getting and running our own. So this Blog post is really designed to help you along this process and give you some vital tips that will give you some basic guidance and help you avoid some of the scraps, bruises and road blocks that might come up.

With the explosion and speed of technology these days, it’s almost impossible to keep up with the many ever-changing tools that we can utilize when working with our visually impaired and blind students. One tool that has recently been on the minds and wish lists of many departments is a 3D printer.  I am here to share my experience, successes and struggles during the entire process from hoping to purchase a 3D printer to producing models and tools that are changing the way our VI students are taught.

I’m sure you have all read the articles and news stories of various agencies 3D printing limbs, cars, castles and even Van Gogh’s ear (that’s a real thing). These accomplishments can make 3D printing seem intimidating and way out of our personal reach. There were many times in this process where I had those same doubts. I had zero experience with 3D printing, setup, operation, filament, CAD (huh?) and very little extra time, as I spend most of it with students all over our county. Hopefully this post will help you not only with the process of obtaining a 3D printer but give you enough tips to help you feel confident and capable through the process:

Photo of the  Van Gogh's 3D printed ear.

The “Ask”

We were fortunate enough to able to purchase our 3D printer through our Low Incidence Comittee. We weren’t sure if it would get approved but we knew we had to go in with a solid and informed ask. Here are some tips to help when putting together your “ASK” or even getting this process started.

Be Prepared

Find a local Makerspace in your area. A Makerspace is a place in which people with shared interests can gather to work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment, and knowledge. The Makerspace is equipped with 3D printers, laser cutters, various milling devices, and more. You will be surprised how close and frequent they are becoming.  Start with a Google search of: Makerspace near me.  The first time I tried this I found a giant Makerspace less then 3 miles from our office. To be honest we werent even all that aware that our own main offices had a full on STEM makerspace, and after finally connecting they were and still are a huge support for us. They really helped in the technicall aspect of this process and our dept. helped them to see the possibilities this technology could have in Specail Education as a whole. Turned out to be a match made in heaven. This exchange could also be highly beneficial for the educators and students in your own area!

Makerspace: Large workshop with people working together at tables creating 3D objects.

Hands on introduction and collaboration

Collaborating with local clubs and organizations would be beneficial.  A lot of elementary and even more middle schools and high schools have robotics clubs and STEM groups. There are also scouting organizations, and other community agencies that have the skills and equipment to make this happen. Chances are there will be members of these local clubs and organizations willing to offer assistance or help when you are getting started.  This could lead to invaluable collaborations later on.

3D Printers in your Community

If there is a geographically close VI department/someone in the field already using a 3D printer or 3D prints, visit the location and pick their brains. In this field, collaboration is so vital to fend off that tendency to feel like a lonely island surrounded by a sea of questions.

I have met with a couple different departments in the last few weeks to help them with their “ASK” and any other questions they might have in this process.  I have found that when you connect with technology professionals who might not know much about working with the visually impaired, but know a lot about 3D printing/engineering /robotics etc., they are not only willing but excited to help, collaborate, and even print some of the tactile tools before you even purchase a printer.

All these steps will greatly increase your preparedness for the “ASK” or even just the idea and help you and the ones you work with to be more comfortable with this technology.

Great!  We got approval, but what 3D printer should we get?

Honestly, there are a lot of really specific factors that will limit your choices: The number one being price point. 3D printers have become so much more affordable in recent years, but still can get way up there in price. I won’t recommended a specific brand printer, as there are so many great options, but I will give you some tips to help you decide.

Just like purchasing a new car you can’t get around doing some research. We focused our research on a printer that was user-friendly and good for newbies.

Size matters! The printer bed size will be a limiting factor to the size of the prints you might want to produce. The printer bed is the main flat surface on which the prints will be made. Inexpensive printers typically have a very small build plate. This means a lower price point but will also limit the prints you can do.

Photo of a man's spread hand spanning on a 3D printer bed; the bed extends about 3

One of the best tips I have is when you talk to local agencies that are 3D printing, find out what people are using around you. I’m going to share the reason I suggest this.  I call it the “Jimmy Effect.”  A student I worked with from 7th grade to graduation is currently at a UC school majoring in video/music. I was surprised at his choice in music software as it was less accessible then his former choice. His preferred media is Braille. He told me his choice was driven by the added benefit of being able to instantly ask any of the 20 people around him at any time any questions about the software, as they all knew how to use it proficiently. Having someone close by who has experience with the same printer can be a huge factor.  In our area, the college down the street is running 5 of the same 3D printers we have.  Similar to that neighbor that is a mechanic and has the same brand car, we can always walk over there and ask them for help with any problem that might pop up.

A word of caution when ordering your printer

So a lot of really smart engineer types love assembling these things from as many parts as possible (yeah this is a thing too). This is awesome if you have those skills and or your name is MacGyver, but for the most part you would want to get the assembled option. A “plug and play option” is the best for starting out. A 3D printer that arrives (mostly) assembled will save hours of time and trouble.

When your 3D printer arrives, there will be a setup process and a small amount of assembly, but this is usually broken down into easy-to-read steps from the company. Even easier is to find a YouTube video that will guide you through this process step-by-step. Seems like this is how we learn a lot of things in this field and the assembly of a new 3D printer is no exception.


Just like the Printer in your office needs ink, a 3D printer relies on filament to make these prints. They come in different size reams and thickness (Check your specific model for filament thickness). You will be surprised how far they will go. Now again there are so many out there with more being produced each day. But as total newbies we wanted the most standard and foolproof option we could find. We found PLA (Polylactic Acid), which was the most standard and easy to use. In science guy talk PLA is a biopolymer, i.e., a biodegradable plastic. It is made from renewable raw materials such as cornstarch or sugarcane. ABS is also a fairly easy filament to work with.

Collage of getting started with 3D printing

By Neal Mckenzie