Danielle George’s excellent Royal Institution Christmas Lectures highlighted one aspect of a cultural, social and economic shift that could transform many aspects of our lives; a trend towards hacking and a return to making things. This shift is driven by a combination of a rather unfocused rage against the intangible world of finance, a feeling that a more ‘balanced’ economy would be a better economy, and a natural desire to “cling to the real world” while still benefiting from the convenience of the virtual. This shift can be seen in the emergence of the ‘maker’ movement (evidenced by the huge numbers attending Maker Faires and growth in the number of FabLabs worldwide), the increased interest of governments in manufacturing (especially the appealing sounding but ill-defined ‘high value’ type), and the over-hyping of 3D printing as a technology to transform, in the words of Barack Obama, “the way we make almost everything“.
This last point is particularly relevant now – the market for 3D printers is consistently predicted to be huge, and governments around the world are scrambling to come up with national strategies to respond to this opportunity. 3D printing ticks all sorts of boxes. It sounds wonderfully futuristic yet reassuringly familiar (the use of ‘3D printing’ rather than the more accurate ‘Additive Layer Manufacturing’ was a stroke of marketing genius). It is a technology that almost writes its own headlines thanks to the printing of guns, mini-me, and replacement body parts. It also spans the virtual-physical divide in a way that is really appealing to those who worry about children only able to interact with shiny glass screens (these barriers disappear before your eyes if you hand a small child a tablet running super friendly software such as Doodle3D and connect it to a 3D printer).
Much is made of the ‘design freedom’ that 3D printing enables. But it also teaches through disappointment as pupils learn that freedom still comes with some constraints. An inappropriate choice of design and material can lead to some spectacular fails. 3D printing can also break down some of the barriers between subjects, as printers can used to support learning in biology and geography. There is also the ‘Wow factor’ when stories such as those about 3D printing in space stimulate discussion of what else might be possible, and the role of scientists and engineers in making them real.
The problem is, whenever a technology such as 3D printing comes along, no one really has a clue about its real impact (it is well worth a look at the wonderful BBC Tomorrow’s World archive on YouTube –particular favourites are the clips about the first home computer, mobile phones and digital camera). So is the emergence of 3D printing a golden opportunity to prepare the next generation for a maker-based future? Should we spend taxpayers’ money placing 3D printers in schools as the UK did with PCs in the late 80s and early 90s with its ‘Microelectronics Education Programme’? Would providing ready access to 3D printers provide the next generation a chance to enter the workforce with essential skills for the 2020s and beyond? Possibly, but what would those skills actually be, and is using a 3D printer the best way to develop them?
Danielle George’s message is absolutely right – encouraging children to take an interest in how things work, and fiddling and experimenting with stuff develops really useful skills for life. And while you don’t need a 3D printer to do that, the arrival of a technology that makes making seem accessible, futuristic and fun rather than complicated, old-fashioned and boring is probably only a good thing.