3D Printing Is The Future, and Your Kids Hold the Key

By John Hornick, excerpted from his book, “3D Printing Will Rock the World”

3D printing will rock the world in many ways, but will we be ready? Many companies probably will be unprepared. But the opposite may be true of educators and government policy makers. The former seem to see that tomorrow’s workforce needs to learn about 3D printing today, and the latter are hopeful that 3D printing can revitalize manufacturing. For both, kids are the key, and schools and governments around the world are getting serious about 3D printing.

Kids are just starting to use simple, inexpensive, consumer-grade 3D printers today. They are the early adopters, and machines that are good enough today will become better and better, faster and faster, and capable of making more and more things. Kids will not only grow up with the technology, the technology will grow up with the kids because they will contribute to its advancement. Today’s young innovators will 3D print our future. To some extent they will learn by using their own machines, teaching themselves, and improving the machines as they go. But they will also need access to advanced machines, processes, and materials. Schools and governments are beginning to pave the roads that kids will follow, from printing toys at home today to making high-tech parts and products in the factories of tomorrow.


Turn on the STEAM

There is a lot of talk about the importance of STEM education. Recently, the issue became hotter when STEM became STEAM: Science & Technology interpreted through Engineering & the Arts, all based in Math. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States will have about 9.2 million STEM jobs in 2020. But according to the National Science Foundation, there will not be enough qualified graduates to fill those jobs. Geopolitical expert George Freedman believes the United States will have a severe labor shortage beginning no later than 2020, which will accelerate in that decade.

But there is hope. According to a joint international report spearheaded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Education Society, 3D printing will significantly enhance STEM+ education within a few years.


Inspiring Kids to Learn

Adults often ask: “If I had a 3D printer, what would I do with it?” In my 3D printing lectures, I answer this question with a brilliant insight I learned from Mark Trageser, an independent toy designer who uses 3D printers to prototype and make toys. He says, “Don’t ask me what to do with a 3D printer, tell me what to do with it.” I love it. Many adults need a little help to see how 3D printers can fit into their lives, at least today. But kids don’t ask this question. They seem to be born with the innate ability to use technologies available to them. Hand a kid a 3D printer, and he or she will figure out what to make with it. Some of the things they make may not impress you, but I guarantee you that kids will push the envelope, not only of the things they make but of what the machine can do. Kids will do things with 3D printers that we may not think are possible. Why? Because they are not burdened with adult prejudices. Kids don’t know what can’t be done.

It isn’t always easy to get kids interested in learning. But 3D printers inspire kids to learn simply because they exist. Put them in the same room together, and great things will result. I hear story after story of how kids are drawn to 3D printers as if they contain superstrong kid magnets that pull back their eyelids, exposing bulging eyes. Is it that these machines empower them to make things they want, without depending on adults, or that they tug at the maker strings deep inside them, or that they know with some sixth sense that these machines have a fundamentally different ability to transport them to places they could reach in no other way?

Adults can help the learning process. It is the adults’ responsibility to bring 3D printers to the kids or to bring the kids to the printers. In “Coming to a school near you” and “Coming to a school not so near you,” I give examples of how kids are being exposed to 3D printers in schools and libraries all over the world. Learning takes place for everyone, every hour of every day, everywhere we go. This goes double for kids, and the BBC gets it. In the UK, the BBC is trying to inspire young viewers with new TV shows, online learning, games, and contests involving 3D printing and other technology. In one show, Nina and the Neurons: Go Digital, the characters get hands-on experience with 3D printers. As 3D printing industry writer Michael Molitch-Hou said, the new shows are like “Sesame Street for the digital era.”

Anything that connects kids and 3D printers is good, especially if it meets kids on their own ground. The more kids are exposed to 3D printing, the more they will be inspired, the faster the technology will be adopted and improved, and the more prepared they will be for the future.


Coming to a School Near You

A joint report by the New Media Consortium, the Consortium for School Networking, and the International Society for Technology in Education (“New Media Report”) predicts that 3D printing will be fully adopted in K–12 education by about 2019. An amazing array of public and private initiatives is making this happen.

One is the Obama administration’s program to bring fully equipped makerspaces into a thousand US schools. Another is M.Lab21, which is bringing high-school shop classes into the twenty-first century by adding 3D printers and scanners, and developing advanced-manufacturing curricula. Its founding members, America Makes, 3D Systems, and the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (now called SME), will be supported by the likes of Deloitte, GE, Intel, Johnson Controls, Lockheed Martin, and NIST, which are all in the forefront of industrial 3D printing adoption.

Consumer 3D printer maker MakerBot launched the MakerBot Academy to put a MakerBot 3D printer in every American high school. For colleges, MakerBot launched MakerBot Innovation Centers. The first center, at the State University of New York at New Palz, is making more than thirty 3D printers available for free use by students and faculty.

3D printing software powerhouse Autodesk earmarked $250 million to improve STEAM education in America’s twenty-seven thousand middle and high schools with its Design for the Future program. According to president and CEO Carl Bass, “Our customers have unfilled, high-paying positions due to the lack of qualified US high school and university graduates.” The program gives teachers the tools they need to prepare students for STEAM careers. Consumer 3D printer maker Airwolf is implementing a similar idea close to home: teaching Orange County California teachers how to use 3D printers in the classroom. To help teachers know what to teach, teacher J. J. Johnson’s SeeMeCNC offers a complete 3D printing curriculum.

How do these efforts translate into the schools? One example is Charlottesville, Virginia’s, school-within-a-school concept, where “lab schools” within area middle and high schools give students work experience in advanced manufacturing. Garnering international TV coverage, Buford Middle School launched the program with a 3D printing workshop, where students made their own stereo speakers.

3D printers are also coming to a college near you. T. J. McCue, who spent eight months traveling the United States to see firsthand how 3D printing is changing America, reports that over two hundred universities and colleges offer 3D printing coursework. MIT and the New York City College of Technology offer industrial 3D printing courses to scientists, engineers, and architects. Florida Polytechnic University opened a 3D printer–equipped Rapid Application Development Makerspace Lab. Purdue University opened a 3D printing lab for students in its College of Technology.

John Hornick is a partner with the Finnegan IP law firm, based in Washington, DC and the author of the new book, 3D Printing Will Rock the World. As the founder of Finnegan’s 3D Printing Working Group, he advises clients about how 3D printing may affect their businesses. Hornick frequently speaks and writes on 3D printing and has been recognized as a thought leader in this space. His book is available for purchase on Amazon in both print and Kindle formats.