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Sean O'Reilly, Innovator in 3D Printing, Talks STEM Innovation

Posted by Sara Goodman on Mar 18, 2016


"I think kids younger and younger can interface with these tools of 3D printing and scanning and whatnot and be able to manifest some ideas. ... Whatever it is they happen to be into, find a way to have them pursue it and pursue it in an open-ended way — to think about it experimentally." -Sean O'Reilly

3D printing innovator Sean O'Reilly weighs in at the STEM² Summit on the rise of this new industry and how it factors into STEM education.

In his lecture, transcribed below, you'll hear about:

  • A breakdown of what 3D printing is and how it works
  • O'Reilly's own background in STEM learning as a child
  • How 3D printing could be used in the classroom


Dr. Priscilla Nelson: Sean O'Reilly is the founder and president of 3D Printsmith LLC in Brighton, Mass., an engineering and consulting company with 3D printing and attitude manufacturing solutions. That's a mouthful! Mr. O'Reilly is a plastics engineer with over 20 years’ experience in materials and process development for industries including aerospace and energy engineering. Mr. O'Reilly holds two patents in composite materials. 

Mr. O'Reilly specializes in tackling difficult and mission-critical 3D printing, 3D scanning, and reverse engineering projects. He enjoys helping clients explore additive manufacturing for engineering, medical, and structural applications. He has ads on 3D printing to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, Emerald Physicians Group, and is also a guest lecturer on 3D printing at MIT with a medical design degree.

Sean O'Reilly: Thank you very much ... looks like something my son would do.

Hopefully you can hear me okay, and thank you for the great introduction. I'm really happy to be here.


I'm an engineer by background, and what I'm doing now is kind of a "3D-printing evangelist." Well, today, I'm not here as an innovator or as an enhanced person, but I just want to show you kind of what this 3D world is that I'm in now and what it might be, or what meaning it might have for you as STEM educators. Just four things I really want to say today, and I'll try to keep it brief. It's really just about trying to explain to you in a really brief overview, and then on my path along the way, and just a couple of the things to suggest that I came up with here.

Don't worry — I'm not going to go through all these and everything. I'd really love to do it, but it would take a whole day, and I have to hold that back as an engineer; really, to just say that there's many processes and many different ways to do this.

Six main methods

  1. Melted strand from a nozzle, heated and steered
  2. Bucket of powder, precise gluing or melting of layers
  3. Bucket of liquid, make layers solid by laser curing
  4. Squirt liquid jets on a platform, U.V. light to harden
  5. Solid polymer block, cure areas with 2 steered lasers
  6. Thin sheet layers, fused or glued precisely

If you look at the orange ones, we're talking about polymers there — plastics. The blue up here we're talking about metals in different ways. You can also print metals then. Lastly, we have these oddball processes, which may be ceramics, or you've got bio-printing for instance, which is regenerative medicine which is coming up now. You may have heard about this in the media. There's even some ways to do large kinds of parts.

I'm not to go through all that; I'm really just going to give you the kind of the "seven-year-old" viewpoint. I was imagining, if you were a room full of seven year olds, how would I sort of boil that down some way? I thought about it, and it's really hard to do, but there's maybe six processes in total and that's it. Even these I'm going to break down even further and give you the one-minute overview here.

Basically, if you think about a glue gun for one [example] of it now.

Number one: A glue gun melts some plastic; you steer it around very accurately, and you place it one layer at a time. All these 3D print processes are about doing it in layers. You basically have an object that's been digitized, so now a CAD model or something like that, and the computer that's doing the printing will now slice that into layers, and whatever process is being used, it will build up one layer at a time. It will either be with this type of hot-glue gun, or tight method that accrues where you put it, or it could be a bucket of powder.

Let's say we're talking about metals. That's done with powder, and basically, you've got very very fine particles that are being laid down and fused with a laser, or maybe they're glued together with some kind of a resin. In a nutshell, that’s what happens to metals and very accurately.

Then you've got the liquid version, and that produces something maybe like this, and it's basically at the point of a liquid that's light sensitive. All you really have to know is that they let a little bit of liquid in a small area at a time, and then they dance around with a laser on top of it; not to make fun of it, but that's what's really going on, one layer at a time. It solidifies, and then more liquid is introduced, and the void is basically the bottom of the book has dropped down, so you grow apart down much like that over thousands and thousands of layers, and you end up with this solid part at the end of the day. That's really all I'm going to say on the technical side of it, because I really want to get on to what it's all about.

Now, you've heard so much about it in the media, hopefully, and it's a bandwagon, right? We're on it now. That's definitely not right. Is it all just hot air — it's another bubble of some kind? Is there any merit to this? Is it really going to change things? Well, some people might say, "Well, maybe we need this like a hole in the head." It's just something else. It turns out it's really good for fixing holes in the head.

oreilly-jaw.pngI've got an example here. This is from a woman; she's still alive. Quite elderly — 85 or so — and she had a degenerative disease that meant she needed a whole lower mandible, and for the first time a year and a half to two years ago, they 3D printed an entire lower jaw and gave her that jaw. Within a couple days, she was eating and talking and perfectly fine with that. This kind of cranial repair is now federally okay now in the USA for gunshot wounds in returning soldiers and people like that, so it's going to have a dramatic effect on cranial surgery.

oreilly-paper.pngWhere is all this going? Maybe we need a map to tell us that, but here's an example of the paper-printing process. It's a little bit different to what I talked about earlier on, but basically just pieces of paper glued together and scored with a knife, and it's done with a photo-printing process as well, so you end up with this kind of contour-terrain map that architects could use or somebody could use in a model. It's a very beautiful way to present something. For complex parts — really complicated things like engine blocks, engineering parts — this is where it really shines, because you can do things that would be [impossible] any other way relatively quickly and cheaply.

For something that has a lot of complexity, it's blind to that. It really doesn't matter how complex they are; you can build it with one of the 3D printing methods. We got all these new materials coming downstream, and that's the case coming up now. We have the benefits now — they're really driving to see what can we use to make things with. Metals, ceramics, composites. I'm showing you in the background, and that would be really interesting to see that be done in sort of the 3D printing format. Concrete, all kinds of things, and bio-printing from our own stem cells to regenerate our own organs. I know it sounds crazy, but we're only a few years away from having that be doable; in fact, it's been done now in small ways.

All right, so are we going to be able to print houses? Is that crazy? Well, it turns out that NASA is looking into printing buildings on the moon, and they're thinking about how they might do that. Maybe they'll bring up a 3D printer and try to do that from some way of gathering up the local soil and debris and putting something together. There's an organization at Southern California University, Applied Extraterrestrial Printing, that said, "You know, I think we can print houses here, too."

Just something interesting to note, this kind of method where you have this robotic gantry pumping out concrete, you're able to leave gaps for plumbing and wiring as you get over into the last part. A lot of functionality can be built in. Anyway, that's just a concept; that's just a CAD drawing, that's maybe ten years away, right? So who knows?

Oh, it looks like it happened the other day in China! Winsome Company in Shanghai just built 10 of these structures in a day. They call them houses, but I think they're more like a shed right now, but, you know, you get the idea. This is done modularly with these kind of layers at a time and then assembled together. They built 10 in a day; they were using recycled roll from one of their buildings as part of the makeup of this concrete, and they are saying that these structures will be able to sell for about $5,000 apiece, and right now, they're targeting very poverty-stricken areas that might need temporary shelters and things like that. Who knows what it will become? I think it will probably look a lot better than that.

On the really really tiny end of this, we've gotten down to parts that are so small they can be used for micro needles in dermal patches. If you remember the nicotine patches from years ago, I think they were another version of that. They had tiny needles filtering in some nicotine into the bloodstream, and now they can use that for vaccines and different kinds of medicine without hypodermics, and it's a very efficient way to do it, but you have to get these tiny needles to attach to the skin just right.

oreilly-car.pngThis series racecar mock up that you see is only 300 microns. That's about three times as thick as one of your hairs, so it's so small I don't really think you can see it too well, but I have a few of them in here, and I'll just try to sort of show you what they look like. 

It's a bit hard to pass them around to others. There you go! There's nothing in there, so don't worry about taking anything. This was done in Vienna. Their version of MLT is called TUBN and they're championing this process.

Okay, so how many of you get input now into these great 3D printing processes, because we need something planned in order to get at something. We need a file — a visual file to work on. There's really just two ways that you can get that. One is you can model it from scratch, from a CAD model, so you have 2D drawings which are made three-dimensional, and engineers will use cameras that you can then feed directly to a 3D printer. Or you can scan it; you can 3D scan something, and it's already been done for a long time in medicine with MRIs and T scans. They are actually three-dimensional scans; you might just see a 2D slice of something on the wall when they show you what they've found, but really, it's 3D data that is used. I can show you a little bit about what I do with that kind of technology.

For example, here's an example of something that's commonly curved and a bit hard to model, or if you're trying to reverse-engineer it, you have to start from scratch. If you scan it, you can pick up all those curves, and you end up with many views that get aligned together up here, and finally, you end up with the CAD model that you can then change any way you like. I did some work with Harvard Medical School on these plates that they used to repair really bad injuries. If you break your wrist badly enough, you might need to put a plate and some pins in, so they're looking at how they can produce these plates tailored to somebody's specific problem or specific anatomy, and that can be tailored to get things just right. It's a difficult thing to do, and so it's opening up some doors.

We were lucky enough to get a project with Sackler Museum at Harvard, and they have an ancient Chinese section. They were using 21 pieces from that to teach online [...] around the world, people are ready to study these with eyes, and then we scanned a lot of them in color in very high detail, and now, they can spin them around on-screen and get to study these items — many even closer up than if you were in the museum. This is a Ming Dynasty plate from the 15th century. I didn't draw it, but it's very good, though. It survived the process.

For architecture, again, if it's a historically preserved building, you can't be applying old material to it. You can't touch it in a lot of places, so in this case, we were able to scan something and reproduce it for some renovation that was going on in the Back Bay Mansion.

All right, so I know I'm moving pretty fast, I'm sorry, but I want to get to the end of this bit here. Okay, so I really want to sort of get you excited if I can about design and what's happening with design now. Traditionally, what you're looking at here is an aircraft bracket, and it's been designed for manufacture, so it's been designed knowing how it was going to be built with certain types of machinery and different kinds of operations that were out there. If you sort of wanted to optimize that, if you wanted to make it as wide as you possibly could and still retain all its strength, what if you threw out all the "How are you going to make it?" side and you just say, "I need it to be made of this material to occupy this space and to have this functionality to take this kind of stress or pressure, and I don't care about the shape." Now, there’s software that can do that, and it basically takes all these inputs, and then it tells you what shape it is and it designs it for you.

This is the result of this bracket here putting through the algorithms to develop that. You can see it's kind of a ... to me, it's more beautiful; it's more of a natural type of shape, and it does exactly what it's supposed to, and it has no excess material anywhere, and you can build it in 3D printing. But, you know, the difficult thing is finding other ways to do it. The future of design then might be somebody deciding what they want functionality-wise and letting the computer pick an automated design. That's a really big reversal in the way things have been done and quite exciting.

Well, just for me, kind of my story with it. As you know, I have a background in engineering. I started off as a curious kid, just like a lot of kids, and I was really good at taking things apart, and sometimes they didn't get put back together, but not always. I probably felt interested in technical things very early on. I wasn't doing well in school in England when I was growing up. It was a very very large school that I felt very lost in, and I felt like I was falling behind in math and science and everything like that. It was an easy place to hide, and so I began to really dread going to math class.

Then my family moved us to Ireland and a complete reboot. It was a small tiny little school in the country, and I just decided I didn't want to have this dread anymore, so I'm going to ask all the stupid questions I can; I just don't care. I was that persona that used to badger the teachers and say, "Why? What does this mean?" Everything like that. I think, in a sense, they might have appreciated it a little bit too, because I was probably asking questions that other people were sitting there having in their heads but didn't ask. For me, it was great, because I started to enjoy the sciences again, and I lost that feeling of dread, and it helped me a lot, but I don't know if it's something that everyone could do, but it's just something that happened to me.

I think family, friends, and mentors ... I'm not from an engineering family by any degrees, so I didn't really have that sort of family orientation of becoming an engineer. I think most people that influenced me would have been college students that were sort of on a level I could relate to and, you know, you'd talk to them, and they were sort of giving the worldview of what it was like to study engineering and be an engineer and make it exciting. I just think it’s great if there's a way to encourage the young kids to ask questions and have no fear. That wasn't present in me; I was incredibly shy, so just a point I wanted to make.

Once I started in engineering, you know, you get more excitement generated if you're that way inclined in any way to be interested in the technical things, because you have so many gained tools to build anything you want, and that's what engineering's for. You know where to go, where to find the information to build whatever you want. The combination of the skills and the tools then is a great revelation, I think.

When I went into the industry, I always went into R&D, because that was the exciting point for me — where people were just sitting around the table, and they're brainstorming, and they're trying to come up with a very early essence of this thing that you're trying to build. There's a lot of energy in the air there, so I stayed with that. I know it's that, from my experience anyway, how that actually happens is eventually you're sitting around with paper clips and straws and pieces of tape, sometimes just graphically trying to describe what it is you're trying to get across as an idea. A lot of things very early on come to a big decision point just by doing that.

I worked with someone who was really good at making these kinematic models, they were called, and literally used to make one out of straws, and then he'd make it a construction that would end up going to space, but it always began with a straw model. I do it myself. I think it's a good idea, and the kids do it, right? It's easy. Now I've got a four-year-old daughter, and she's always asking me, "Why, why, why?" It's revenge or something.

[...] I think it's about, "You've got to have some tools and the creativity in order to manifest something.” If someone's a great and inspired dreamer but they have no tools, it won't get manifested, and if you have a bunch of 3D printers with blinking lights and no files, it doesn't do any good. We're going to marry the two together, and now that there's some obstacles gone away to design and some obstacles gone away to building things, I think kids younger and younger can interface with these tools of 3D printing and scanning and whatnot and be able to manifest some ideas. I think that will really give them wind; I know it would to me. Hopefully, you'll gradually get to introduce it.

Then, if the curriculum would sort of allow us and you to come up with something they're already into already and really passionate about and then follow that to the nth degree, I think that's another way to keep them going, because it's a third element that is needed, right? Creativity, tools, and a will — the will to do it. You can't be forced to create, in a sense. I think that’s [the key] of getting it out of them. Whatever it is they happen to be into, find a way to have them pursue it and pursue it in an open-ended way — to think about it experimentally. As I said in R&D where I was, we liked to hang out. Everything was done in small increments at the start, and we logged everything we did so it didn't make the same mistake twice — or we tried not to — and in the digital world especially — you know, they all say you should never do anything twice in the digital world, because once you've done it, you can set it to retrieve it. You shouldn't have to repeat it. I think if this experimental approach — which is used in industry everywhere — could be used early on and instilled as a way to do things, they have more confidence then to develop something completely new; it won't seem so daunting.

oreilly-daughter.pngThen, the last point is really just all this, and I'm sure you know. [...] This is my daughter Ettie, and so she's just about entered this system, and I think that I'm a little bit concerned that there has to be sort of a level arena to decide if she wants to be technical or not. I don't mind what she does, but right now, I see already there's kind of this clear division — as far as marketing, anyway.

There's the pink and the princesses and dolls on one side, and then for the boys, there's the construction sets and bats and balls and all that, and she's sort of caught up in that, and it sort of makes you wonder, “Could we sort of delay that somehow?” Maybe it's just market forces coming at us with that one too, because it seems to me that the interest is there for anything. She'll turn just as easily to cars or construction toys as she will to dolls, I think, given the right environment. I just think that we need to sort of inch them a little bit away, if we can, from being told that there should be princesses or, like, princesses or dolls or whatever. That's just my opinion.

Thinking in 3D. One of the first things that I notice when I was entering engineering was they literally tested us. There was an aptitude test for thinking in 3D, and I found that it was something that came naturally anyway, and a lot of people might not, and a lot of young girls, if they're not into materials and building and construction and things like that, it might not be. They might go a long way through school and decide they want to be in engineering or technical work and discover there's a gap there and that they kind of have a struggle with that. Maybe we can introduce a bit of that sort of spatial-themed thinking, that you have to be able to visualize something in 3D if you're going to build it or design it, and maybe we can bring that in, in order to have it be more natural to everybody.

How young is too young for STEM? That's my question to you. I'm just wondering, is there a point where we're trying to cram too much into young minds or anything, but I think that'll be interesting to see how that develops when looking at STEM for young people.

Then, lastly, is there something that is impeding imagination? I wonder about — we have so much audio or visual input now. For me, if I'm watching TV or watching something on TV, it kind of fills up every one of my senses and I don't have a [space] to imagine, but when I'm reading a book, the opposite happens. As far as what we use for tools for teaching, I wonder, I just want to bring up the question that maybe we should evaluate that and see what really works. Is it better to kind of start on our feet in a certain sense and then have imagination rise up? Because it does need to develop, and mine I think developed from time alone and time that I wasn't busy and wasn't filled up, and that's when my imagination kicked in.

All right, so that's my notes. I just want to really take the chance to kind of introduce you to this idea of biomemetics, if you haven't looked at it already. It's just a … to me, you know, the vast resources out there of millions of years of evolution and design. Right? You know, trial-and-error nature has been perfecting the way that lizards hang onto the wall or spiders create silk or beetles have a hard keratin shell that can withstand a footstep or something. We can look to that and people obviously now, and that's a science and a study of how we can tap into it, but the sky's the limit there; we don't even know what's under the oceans yet. There is a great resource for teachers at this Biomemetry 3.8 website by Janine Benyus. She's the literal guru of this study, and in terms of what are these kids going to design and where are they going to get their innovation. This is a huge thing I'd like to pose here.

With that, if there's any questions for me, I'd be happy to take them.

Audience member: It's not really a question, but I think we make the assumption that sometimes kids being more focused on their computer games and things like that is taking away their direction from being creative, and your daughter at four is really seeing my own craft. They are going to create; they are going to be given tools. I think the way that's going for education, we will to see that. I've seen it already. And yes, if we can make grades on a screen but it's really a three-dimensional image, and they feel that they are creative and that they have tools.

O'Reilly: Well certainly, the whole video game revolution is where we've certainly created skills and then not serving them.

Audience member 2: In high school, I took your course. What do you think of the value [is] of having a 3D printer, versus students actually construct models that they designed in a CAD software?

O'Reilly: Well you know, I think if you're learning about it at that level, I think that feeling something with your hand is always good. If it's in an industrial setting, I don't think we should be spending hours and hours and hours building something out of cardboard if it's efficient to build it another way, and if it gets the idea across visually better [...] Yeah, I still recommend those models, but to maybe work with some digital files. The scanning side of it is interesting, because it's otherwise very difficult to construct all the detail that was done by hand.

Audience member 3: I am fortunate to have a 3D printer in my classroom, but it takes so long to print, and every student wants to take home something they designed and printed. I just can't get through it, so I don't know if anyone had any suggestions.

O'Reilly: Keep it flying low to the ground, whatever you do.

Audience member 3: I mean, right now it's just cookie cutters, but you know, it's an hour and a half for every cookie cutter. It's just —

O'Reilly: Yeah, well, I think you can get these if you imagine like, you know, those spiral stencils and they’re very very thin and quite complicated, but that's kind of the negative of the printing: that it's an hour or two —

Audience member 3: I actually did do the radical spiral things.

O'Reilly: Yeah, yeah, or something you can make from a kind of flattened set and then build into a three-dimensional thing by snapping it together after it's [printed].

Audience member 4: I was interested in how you sound a little bit skeptical about all the technology that's kind of rushing into the classroom and the idea that if we just get the right app, the kid will learn math on his own. You even said, "Maybe we should pause a little bit and test and kind of think about what works." You don't really hear a lot of people. You know, there's a fierce urgency, and we have this idea that our innovative disruptors, if we just give them more access to the classroom, all these problems would solve themselves, and it's kind of refreshing.

O'Reilly: Well, it's an honest thing, you know? Direct experience in our own mind of a child coming up, and you just sort of wonder. I'm worried about overload, I guess, but I am really really keen on these tools and having great access, and they’re just going to have so much more opportunity than maybe I did in terms of these tools and access and the Internet and everything. We didn't even have that! I wonder, “Yeah, should we sort of stem the flow, or abate it if it makes sense?” but I think it should be looked at. I'm not saying that we should cut out TV from the class or something, but maybe there should be a study. This is a federal situation, and we're looking into this nationally, so why don't we just study that aspect of it out?

Audience member 5: Could you speak a little bit more on what things in elementary school can help you go on this path, and also, what can we do in elementary school to help out with things like 3D printing? Because obviously, I don't have the technology for that, and we're just not quite ready for that, but what things should we do to help build towards that?

O'Reilly: Towards having 3D printing?

Audience member 5: Or just having that concept of 3D printing.

O'Reilly: Well, you know, there was the slide that I showed that had a six- or seven-year-old view of the way I would explain that to them, and really, it's the kind of thing you can do with a little experiment. In fact, if I had an hour today, I would have done that or brought in some things that you can do to show young kids exactly how it works, and they'd say, "Ah, I see it now," because when you see it just in a list like that, it just kind of goes over everyone's hair, right? Me too. But I think all of those six bullets I shared with you and what not could be done as a little experiment on the desk with sugar, I really think so, because it's not really complicated in this essence.

It's just that what happened was that we had a maturation of all these technologies. We had ... 3D printing is more than 25 years old in this format, but it was with these giant industrial machines that cost a fortune and were only available to NASA or someone like that. Then you had computing power getting better; you had motion control and robotics coming up, and then much more accessible and easier and cheaper. All this together led to this proliferation of 3D machines in all flavors.

But that's the height being thrown at it, and I think in the essence of it — it can be done in a small experimental sort of setup, just to get the points across and to think about the issues and the problems. Once it's done really basically, then the problem is already kind of managing the means or the wattage or how do you get the powder to be exactly where you want it and fire hazards and things like that.

You can go on and on about the technical stuff, but I think the basic format for young kids, they'll get it. Whether or not they have the printers or not, they can kind of get the idea of how it works and try it out.

Dr. Nelson: Thank you; what a way to have your thinking stretched!


Images courtesy of speaker,,, and Dr. Alexsandr Ovsianikov.

KnowAtom is a founding partner in STEM².






Topics: STEM Squared Summit, Guest Innovator

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