The 3D printing industry has a history of some 32 years. Within that (relatively) short period of time the technology base has established itself as a critical tool within many vertical manufacturing sectors for product development and, more recently, production.
Beyond industry, though, one key vertical target market that has been identified in recent years by many 3D printing ecosystem companies is “education.” In particular, vendors of desktop 3D printing platforms are targeting formal education systems both locally and nationally as a primary market.
Important, but what’s the catch?
It is hard to dispute the importance of high-quality formal education and, within the context of 3D printing, it will undoubtedly lead to wider and wiser adoption of 3D printing technologies by the generations of children and young people that gain an early understanding . That said, for schools and colleges with the foresight to embed 3D technologies into their curriculums, there are issues to consider, including competitive vendors, consumable costs, locked-in curriculum materials and misleading marketing materials, among others.
Moreover, when considering 3D printing and ‘education’ currently, it is prudent to look beyond the prescriptive educational institutions for today’s youth and consider the accessibility of education around 3D printing and additive manufacturing for the pre-millennial generation.
Indeed, some would argue that the formal education system is actually way ahead with 3D printing than that afforded to potential current users. I was speaking with Andy Langfeld, General Manager of MakerBot Europe about just this issue earlier in the year.
It is not surprising that Andy is a passionate advocate of 3D printing education, but his insights into education within industry was telling:
We have found that education [within industry] is a bit slow, people need to be 3D printing ready, especially for industrial AM. Companies need internal learning centres and this is a perfect fit for MakerBot and one of our target markets.
"What else can I do?"
This approach not only promotes education and training on the ground by way of workshops and consultancy initiatives but promotes innovation by injecting the additive mindset into company culture.
Even while Andy conceded that "it can be a slow burn,” he was able to cite examples where companies bring the concept models in-house to begin with while still outsourcing more complex functional models and tooling etc. But, he said, “once they get it, it tends to move quite quickly and subsequently triggers ‘what else can I do?’”
Indeed, at any level of education, this is one of the benefits of getting hands on with new tech rather than just learning the theory. Furthermore, by introducing 3D printers and other ecosystem components such as 3D design software and 3D scanning into formal curriculums students can experience the processes involved.
Hands on & interdisciplinary
The opportunities to develop invaluable links to other subjects cannot be overlooked either, subjects including but not limited to maths, science, IT, art, history and geography. There is a great deal of documented evidence that illustrates how the majority of kids that work with the technologies today are excited by it, moreover, they will have knowledge, familiarity and experience on their side that will drive their skill levels up for when they hit the employment market and can take it to the next level.
Of course, 3D printing will not appeal to every student everywhere, or be relevant to them now or in the future, but by including it in curriculums today it can improve practical skills, critical thinking and problem solving — valuable skills for anyone, wherever they end up and whatever they end up doing.
The earlier, the better
Looking at the big industrial picture: introducing 3D technologies early in the education system and presenting students with the opportunity to engage with them and develop practical skills can only improve the odds of producing more designers, engineers and manufacturers. The skills gap across many manufacturing industries in Western nations is a real problem so anything and everything that can be done to close this gap should be emphatically embraced. Of course this means contextualizing 3D printing correctly within its own ecosystem and among traditional, often complementary, technologies.
While only really touching on these undeniable benefits, it would be remiss not to address some of the issues in more detail too. And perhaps the biggest issue, for schools if not universities, is cost. Budgetary constraints are an ongoing problem for many schools and colleges and so even if they can jump the first hurdle to produce the capital expenditure to purchase the equipment, the ongoing expense of the consumable materials can see the 3D printer(s) relegated to dusty corners or cupboards in classrooms when those costs are not budgeted for correctly, or overlooked at the point of sale.
Curriculum materials that holistically support the use of any 3D printer are fundamental to maximizing the value of having platforms in schools. There is a great deal of work being done here, although much of it is by machine vendors that tailor learning materials to specific machines/software, rather than an open approach to a technology set.
Another issue is with teaching staff and ensuring that they have the understanding and the correct curriculum materials to maximize the use of 3D printers in the classroom — not just in design technology but across all areas of the curriculum.
Even while these issues are pertinent, they are not insurmountable, and I am a firm believer that the benefits outweigh the negatives. I have advocated for some time that the education of future generations and industry now is absolutely the key to unlocking the potential of 3D printing and the innovation that comes with it. Thus, even as the 3D printing companies continue to focus intensely on industrial vertical markets, the focus on ‘education’ is likely to increase too, a trend that will benefit all of those industrial sectors and the 3D printing ecosystem alike as knowledge increases and the processes and materials improve: it is all part of the exponential growth potential of 3D printing.
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