AM. The Future?

I was recently invited to attend the ‘Additive Manufacturing Sandpit event’ at Loughborough University that took place on Wednesday 6th July. “What on earth is ‘Additive Manufacturing (AM)’?” I hear you cry and I have to admit I was initially a little unsure of what to expect. AM is also known as ‘3D printing’ and is a way to make stuff by adding very thin layers of polymers, metals or ceramics. This is generally done in liquid, powder or sheet form. So you can ‘print’ things. Things that have previously been designed on a computer (using CAD software). Here’s one:

And here’s a video clip of a printer in action:

I was so ignorant of this technology that I wanted to know at least a little more prior to the event. An enquiry on Twitter and a bit of googling led me to Dave White, a teacher doing some amazing things and blogging about it here. I also came across this amazing use of a printer. And why not ‘print’ your own chocolates?

The day started with three presentations.
We heard from Denise Stephens (of Enabled by Design) describing the challenges that she and fellow MS sufferers encounter. The lack of any design innovation in assistive technology in the last 40 years was driven home to me as Denise shared some truly disheartening images of AT such as crutches, stools, ‘walkers’ etc. They all looked like something out of a 1950s hospital with their sterile, beige features. Why can’t designers consider everyone’s needs? Needs that could be met with relative simplicity, as they are with the Breville Hotcup dispensing kettle for instance (removing the risk of a boiling water spillage).

We heard from Andrew Haslett, Director of Strategy Development at The Energy Technology Institute. Frankly, I was left depressed. In brief, there is a major energy crisis emerging and new and urgent approaches are required (no real surprise, I suppose). Oh, and what’s more, our feeble efforts at a domestic/local level are but drops in an immense ocean. Ok, this is perhaps somewhat gloomier than Andrew’s intended message, but rosy it ain’t.

Finally, we were treated to a presentation by Mike Sharples, an education guru from The University of Nottingham. Mike’s message was refreshing and optimistic in tone. Amongst other things, he lamented the demise of bricolage or ‘tinkering’ in learning. This really resonated with me as someone that is a passionate believer in the power of this approach to learning and it reminded me of my favourite TED talk by founder of ‘The Tinkering School’, Gever Tulley. I could see immediately how AM technology might be one possible route to the resurrection of tinkering. Mike also cited John Dewey, an advocate of constructivist, hands-on experiential learning.

The rest of the day was then spent ‘sand-pitting’. In groups of varying sizes and demographics, we discussed AM with a view to proposing a project that may be chosen to receive £5000 backing. The project/proposal could have a social, energy, assistive technology or education focus.

My group developed a proposal that would involve installing a printer in a primary school, a ‘Dragons’ Den’ activity and a Design Technology project to produce relevant, valuable, useful artefacts. The school in question would become a ‘hub’ for good practice in this technology. We weren’t sure whether there is a primary school in the UK with such a technology, but we were all convinced of the value it could bring.

So what might a school get out of this? Well, it would certainly reinvigorate a Design Technology curriculum. The sheer rapidity of the process of design/manufacture to artifact is exciting and easily allows for multiple iterations. This is where tweaking and tinkering can be exploited. Imagine the possibilities for DT projects: cups/containers, mobile phone cases, stands for MP3 players, jewelry, ornaments, action figures etc.  Children will certainly come up with endless suggestions for projects. Dejan Mitrovic has a portable printer that he has taken into a school where the children each designed there own building in Google Sketchup before they printed the class ‘town’. us casinos 18

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Prices for this technology are tumbling and it is becoming ever more accessible. Once upon a time, the first computers appeared in UK schools and opened up a world of programming to a generation of youngsters. The UK is now a world leader in the computer games industry. Coincidence?

Who knows, the Christmas Present of the near future might be a personal 3-D printer. Print your own Lego pieces, Christmas tree decorations, earrings, jewelry, parts for the broken washing machine. Or, if you don’t have one at home, send your designs off to the local community printer and have them produced for you there.

My eyes have certainly been opened!

11 thoughts on “AM. The Future?

  1. I love the idea of children designing and being able to make their designs via these printers. Their creative minds could really be let loose. Unfortunately the cost of them is prohibitive to most primary schools. However, maybe not for a forward thinking secondary school. It is this sort of equipment that could have changed education for a generation through BSF but alas it was not to be and that is another conversation.

      • In terms of cost 3D printers are available at very reasonable prices. Have a look at http://www.bitsfrombytes.com/ (other machines are available) the RapMan kit starts at less than £1k and the BfB3000 (pre-made) at around £2k. Running costs are one of the main areas where savings can be made BfB machines use polymer at around £45 per kilo (some of the “big boys” in the game cost many times more than this!!!). And if you are not convinced that there is a place in education for 3D printing have a look at my blog http://rapman-education.posterous.com/

        Dave White (AST and Head of D&T Clevedon School, UK)

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  2. In our area, the primaries can send certain projects to the 3D printer based at our teachers centre and a number of local secondary schools have them and are happy to link with feeder primaries to allow use.
    Primary pupils have had the chance to use them as part of the F1 for school project and have absolutely loved seeing the results. Expensive (at the moment) but definitely the way forward.

  3. Dughall I have a similar 3D printer which uses a roll of plastic. Great but too slow except for demo purposes!

  4. Fascinating stuff, a million miles away from the noisy cabbies cafe I’m sat in as I read this…..but more motivation to get my studying done and get involved!

  5. Pingback: 3D Printing | In a roundabout way

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