What do people learn from using digital fabrication tools?


by Erin Riley -

In response to the question of what one actually learns from 3D printing, I thought more deeply about the work we do in our school. While I know conceiving an idea and shepherding it into a tangible form is significant, it is important to be able to articulate its value within an educational setting. It’s also important to reveal the many stages in digital fabrication, especially illuminating the often hidden design process where much of the learning takes place.

Digital fabrication, which begins with digital design and ends with output from a fabrication machine, parallels pre-digital processes for making things.  A laser cutter and CNC router cut designs in a manner similar to a scroll saw. A sculptor can build up clay in an additive approach, just as a 3D printer lays down lines of plastic, or chisel marble with a subtractive approach, as the CNC milling machine would carve wax.  Digital design adds precision, scaling, cross-machine capabilities, and reproducibility to the mix.

Those of us working with students using these tools know that digital fabrication is the merging of the human with the technical. The result is a creative product formed from their ideas and executed through a series of complex design decisions. I often observe that through 2D and 3D design and making, students develop multiple skills, not only in growing proficiency with 2D and 3D design, but also in spatial development and a variety of mathematical concepts.

It is also worth noting students’ learning goes beyond acquiring skills and includes strengthening critical thinking as an outgrowth of working through design and fabrication problems. Gaining facility, and refining their ability to be mindful, active learners isn’t limited to digital fabrication; making in general promotes curiosity-driven, self-directed, creative learning.

Using the lens of my own experience helps me address the challenge of articulating what 2D and 3D fabrication projects teach students. New to digital fabrication myself, I started designing and making objects on these machines less than three years ago when our first 3D printers arrived on campus. 

Skills-based learning: 2D and 3D design and spatial development

Returning to the original question: What does one actually learn from digital fabrication? What is the breakdown of skills acquired through the process of digital design and production, including controlling the machine to make that product? An online forum for teachers using digital fabrication tools recently addressed a similar topic. (The K12 makerspace Google group). Themes that emerged from the conversation included the development of spatial reasoning, math concepts, and 2D/3D design. The posts revealed that many of these teachers see many layers of learning embedded in the design-to-making process.

A simple way of looking at the skills-based learning that occurs in digital fabrication might be by looking at each machine and design approach used. 

3D printer

Learning from the design process:

  • Math and Spatial Reasoning: Navigating the 3D design environment, Designing on all sides-X, Y, Z, Alignment tools, Geometric shape building, Dividing and combining, Measurement tools, Units, Scale, Ratio, Rotating, Mirroring, Boolean operations, and Precision.

Learning from the fabrication process:

  • Machine operation: Machine settings-raft, supports, infill
  • Designing for the machine including its limitations: slicing a model into smaller parts that later get attached, designing supports like cones that can be cut off later, re-orienting the model for better support.
  • Science behind the process: The technology of additive processes, slicing, G-code.

Beginners can jump right into 3D printing with the help of user-friendly software like Tinkercad. The solid geometric forms students build with are watertight which can alleviate certain printing problems and prevent frustrations later on. Complex forms are built up through manipulating positive and negative space and grouping. The learning curve for machine operation is low and students can get involved in the entire design through fabrication process easily.  Once students are comfortable navigating the 3D design space, they can translate their ideas into the 3D world. After a successful introduction to 3D printing, students are excited to attempt more complex projects. 

Laser Cutter

Learning from the design process:


  • Math and Spatial Reasoning: Navigating 2D design environment, X,Y , Geometric shape building, Dividing and combining, Measurement tools, Units, Scale, Ratio, Rotating, Mirroring, Positive and negative space, and Precision.
  • Graphics: Vector design, Alignment tools
  • Ordering, sequencing and visualizing: Layering for the sequence of etching and cutting.


  • Math and Spatial Reasoning: Joinery, Visualizing the translation of 2D to 3D (from shape to form).

Learning from the machine cutting process:

  • Machine operation: Machine settings- stroke, fill, hairline, RGB black.
  • Science behind the process: Laser technology.

The laser cutter makes 2D and 3D objects.  A laser cutter cuts (or etches) material in two dimensions, and flat objects can be made three-dimensional by joining the pieces after they are cut. Designing for the laser cutter involves planning and generating these multiple pieces.

Students quickly begin 2D design by converting hand drawn designs into vectors and outputting them to the laser.  The next step is to learn to draw with basic 2D design programs tools such as the shape drawing tools, the pen tool, and shape builder tool in Adobe Illustrator. 

When moving from 2D to 3D on the laser cutter, joinery comes into play. Here students refer to a timeless pre-digital skill that requires them to consider width of material; visualizing how flat pieces unfold and potentially fit together engages spatial skills.


Learning from the design process:


  • Math and Spatial Reasoning: Navigating 2D design environment, X,Y, Alignment tools, Geometric shape building, Dividing and combining, Measurement tools, Units, Scale, Ratio, Rotating, Mirroring, Positive and negative space, and Precision.
  • Graphics: Vector design
  • Ordering, sequencing and visualizing: Layering for sequence of drilling, milling and cutting.


  • Math and Spatial Reasoning: Joinery, Visualizing the translation of 2D to 3D (from shape to form).


  • Math and Spatial Reasoning: Navigating 3D design environment, Designing on all sides-X,Y,Z, Alignment tools, Geometric shape building, Dividing and combining, Measurement tools, Units, Scale, Ratio, Rotating, Mirroring, Boolean operations.

Learning from the fabrication machine process:

  • CNC Routing and Engraving software software: Tool paths: drill, profile, pocket, V-Carve, 3D modeling, slicing, tool geometry, feeds and speeds, G-Code, measuring.
  • Machine operation: loading stock, zeroing X,Y,Z, switching tools
  • Science behind the process: CNC and milling technology.

A Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machine cuts materials by moving a rotary cutter to remove material and create an object.  The laser cutter and the CNC share many of the same design considerations; both require use of layers and sequencing when planning cuts, carving, drilling and milling. There are limitations inherent in the geometry of the cutting tool that does not account for undercuts and corners. It is also more complex on the machine side with the additional step of selecting appropriate cutting tools and using separate software to generate tool paths.

An added level of learning for the CNC machine is the finish work involved with a woodworking project. Parts are tabbed into the material and require removal and filing.  Some projects generate parts that later need connecting, clamping, filing, and sanding.

The skills acquired from design and fabrication have real world applications in engineering, art, design, science, computer science and math. In addition to these important skills, the culture of a makerspace itself can help students become independent learners driven by curiosity and intrinsic motivation. I experienced this as part of an early user team involved with Greenwich Academy’s establishment of a lab. Mastery of each machine and the unique design considerations required to output to them was new to me. This is what I learned:

I can teach myself to do this.

I can learn how to design in 2D and 3D and use a machine to make that object by seeking out resources to help.

Like with so many new and emerging technologies, there are many resources available. Books, websites, how-to’s, video tutorials are readily available for self-learning.

Why this is important for students: Self-directed learning is a practice that will serve students in all areas of their learning.

I can seek help to troubleshoot problems.

If I can’t find an answer to my question with the resources I have available, to can reach out to others.

When you are really stuck you can call someone, consult an online community, or bug your friends at the local makerspace.

Why this is important for students: There is no shame in asking for help.

I can teach others to do this.

Even if I’m not an expert, the knowledge I have can help others.

When we opened our digital fabrication lab we were all newbies in using the technology. Each one of us learned as we went along, and had something to share with the group.

Why this is important for students: Students contribute to the collective knowledge base.

I can solve new problems.

I can merge ideas, extrapolate, and find connections when I do not have a solution to my specific problem.

Learning comes with all sorts of challenges. Maybe the software isn’t compatible; maybe you have a Mac but they have a PC; perhaps what you are trying to do doesn’t quite match up with the resources you have at hand. We have all experienced a situation when we cannot neatly follow a step-by-step recipe to arrive at a solution. It forces us to dig a little deeper, perhaps learn something different but related, and by doing so, make the connection.

Why this is important for students: It encourages flexible, creative thinking. It provides opportunities for learning to be applied to a situation in a new or indirect way.

Learning is not a one-time thing.

I can tackle increasingly complex problems

The iterative nature of these kinds of projects, plus the unlimited versatility of these tools creates a positive reinforcement cycle. Even when tools are difficult to use, or don’t work as expected, students learn to adjust and accommodate their designs to these constraints. As they use the tools more, they increase their competency and therefore can tackle more complex designs.

It’s okay to go on a tangent with your learning.

I find more opportunities to learn when teaching myself.

The journey of self-learning opens the door to new ideas. Stumbling upon projects, processes and new tools are the raw materials for idea generation. If I don’t know exactly how to get to my goal, there is room to move off course.

Why this is important for students: Students follow their interests in the process of learning. Students learn there is more than “one right answer.”

In the quest to answer a question, I find myself with more questions.

The more I learn, the more questions I have.

I think it must have something to do with wanting to find connections between ideas, but I find as I seek answers to questions, more emerge.

Why this is important for students: Learning fuels curiosity.

I can learn my way.

There are different ways to achieve the same goal.

Learning is personal when you can craft your own strategies for solving a problem. They may not always the most efficient, but they are yours, and become part of your larger body of knowledge. As new ways of doing something are adopted, an old strategy can be applied or modified to future situations and becomes part of a creative problem solving vocabulary.

Why this is important for students: Creative, personally meaningful solutions are prized.

I end with this: making, digital fabrication in schools, is a creative process. Students learn all sorts of skills and ways of thinking that help them become better learners.  Whether it is Boolean operations or how to research problems, the main thing they learn, is how to navigate the process of going from idea stage to final object. 

Grades four and eleven working together on digital fabrication problems.


Anonymous's picture

Very insightful. Great piece! I had been working out ways to translating hands-on digital fabrication into a tangible transformative learning experience. It's helpful to have it clearly articulated this way.

Thanks Erin smiley