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The Mug Factory - Teaching 3D Design and Fabrication

by Tom Kennedy


A former colleague of mine would laugh at the title of this article, an inside joke of how teachers envision the success of their lessons and then get hit with reality. My first effort at 3D integration was no exception. The journey from keychain design to mug factory taught me the intrinsic nature of design and the trials of 3D fabrication. But let's start from the beginning.

In my mind, 3D printing should have interested my students on its own merits. The concept of additive manufacturing seems like science fiction—another innovative machine from the Starship Enterprise that sits alongside the Holodeck and Replicator. "Imagine the possibility!" I told my students, "Imagine what you can design!" However, their association did not link 3D printers with the likes of Star Trek but rather the 3D printed gun they had seen in some television show. So, with 3D printed guns in the realm of possibility, I guess my introductory activity to design and print a personalized keychain was destined to have mixed results. How could a teacher compete with the pop-culture version of 3D design paired with a student's primary inclination to play online pool (or was it poker that week)?

Though I may have slightly exaggerated my first 3D failure, we have all been there at some point. Still, in my case, I didn't quite understand the reluctance. Students worked through their orthographic requirement, sketching their keychains and ensuring their measurement fit with the project guidelines. But they weren't motivated! Next, students designed their keychain in CAD software using my tutorial. But still nothing! Even after their assignment was fabricated, their interest was minimal. How was I unable to spark motivation when the topic of 3D printing is trending in schools across the world? How were students uninterested when there is concrete housing being printed, functional prosthetics, medication and even skin? Simple—my mistake was in leading the design rather than fostering student creativity. There was no student ownership or input. I quickly realized my error when the following assignment was student choice.

While focusing so hard on teaching skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), my first attempt at integration lacked something fundamental—student-centered creative design. Students lacked motivation due to the absence of their input; I learned that teacher-guided design challenges lack authenticity. With a new open-ended, student-oriented project assigned, my class showed more enthusiasm. Designs took on functional solutions to reflect their interests: disc holder, ring box, earbud holder, and, of course, the infamous mug. Then it began, screens across my entire classroom displaying the various stages of mug design, the mug factory was open. But there was still opportunity for success. One particular day, a student figured out that he could design his mug and its handle independently and fuse them together. After sharing his 3D hack, design solutions began popping here and there and a collegial approach to 3D design appeared between the mug makers. Perhaps not the path I had envisioned, but I was still pleased with my mixed results.

While there is probably no universal framework to integrating 3D design and fabrication in K to 12 and beyond, there are some general aspects to keep in mind. So, what worked for me?

Display the potential of 3D design

From my experience, creating a display of 3D-printed artifacts helps peak student interest in design and fabrication. From a 3D printed bust of Stalin on display in my Histoire Mondiale classroom to 3D printed octopus tentacles holding my keyboard at my desk, students respond to the objects. Students would even drop by my classroom to see what was next in the queue.

Deconstruct the complexity of 3D design

Initial instruction should focus on the learning of hard skills associated with CAD design. Simple tasks using key software tools breaks down the complexity of such programs.

Review the principles of design

I have given up the assumption that everybody has an understanding of design principals. Teaching general design will save time in the long run. Just as students often need help with the aesthetics of their poster activities, projects grounded in 3D design possess similar characteristics—alignment / selecting font for 3D text, symmetry, artistic flare.

Limit the dimensions of design

3D printing consumes plastic filament. By limiting the overall dimensions of student design, the printing of projects becomes manageable and affordable. An understanding of project infill percentages also influences the amount of filament used per project. In other words, few projects need to be solid throughout and can be printed with a honey combed interior, thus reducing fabrication costs. Being mindful of manufacturing expenses becomes a lesson in itself, reflective of the budgeting aspect of industry.

Encourage grounded CAD solutions

Students are motivated when their design has a personal connection. Projects like ear bud holders and cellphone stands tend to engage students as they relate to their daily lives. (I learned this the hard way when assigning the keychain and later a pen box project.)

Finish products with a cross-curricular twist

Printing designs in ABS natural (a filament, spooled and ready-to-use for 3D printing) can allow for a cross-curricular component with your school's art program. A printed object is not always a finished one. Working with acrylic paint and sand paper can turn a project into a masterpiece of student creativity.

Also, customization through paint alleviates the pressure to purchase and stock a variety of coloured filament.

So, what if you can't access a 3D printer? Start small. The absence of a printer does not mean that 3D design cannot be taught. Many classrooms, for one reason or another, are unable to purchase a means of fabrication. However, those students can still learn the procedure of 3D design and, potentially, outsource the final aspect of their project. Companies are now readily available to print or cast designs based on a client's specification. Outsourcing production may suit your budget and further motivate your students. Knowing they can access a means of manufacturing their designs may work to further motivate their efforts beyond the classroom. Imagine the possibilities! Imagine the mugs!



Tom Kennedy

Tom Kennedy is a Skilled Trades / Technology Education teacher at Eric G Lambert School in Churchill Falls, NL. He also serves as President of the Technology Education Special Interest Council (TESIC) of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association (NLTA). Tom facilitates sessions on technology integration and will be @ STEMfestNL 2016. Contact Tom by email:

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