British kids hop on 3-D printing bandwagon

British kids hop on 3-D printing bandwagon

LONDON - Some 2,500 schoolchildren visited this month's 3-D Printshow in Islington, London, and returned to class with 50 free 3-D printers worth up to £2,000 each (S$4,000).

The students, aged 11 to 18, and the free hardware, are part of the British government's strategy to get a head start in manufacturing technology .

"Customised or personalised manufacturing is the new battle," explains Ms Shelly Linor, director of global education at Stratasys, which makes 3-D printers.

"Now that computer-aided design software makes 3-D printing more accessible, the West wants to be the first to pursue that trend."

Thus, it is starting with the young. To combat lagging interest and falling grades in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, British Education Secretary Michael Gove recently unveiled a £500,000 fund for 60 schools to buy 3-D printers.

This follows a revised curriculum announced in July, where schoolchildren in their early teens will be taught computer programming, robotics and 3-D printing to make them more competitive globally.

In addition to learning how 3-D printing works, students will use the technology to aid learning in other subjects.

In a trial project introduced at 21 secondary schools last year, science departments used 3-D printers to build models of molecules, eyeballs and cells, and working components for rockets.

"It's a fun, interactive way to convey the subjects. And it helps them prepare for the job market, by giving them design skills and an understanding of manufacturing," says Ms Linor.

Teacher Peter Coker, with Graveney School in Wandsworth, says the school will use their free printer in product design classes for the sixth form, to design textiles for example, or make furniture models.

Girls from Grays Convent High School, Essex, will make iPhone docks with theirs. Student Rameen Rana, 14, says she is keen on 3-D printing because she wants to be an architect.

Still, designing and making things is not for everyone, with or without 3-D printers. Joe Ryder-Richardson, 14, from Tunbridge Wells Grammar, shrugs and says he is not interested in the technology demonstrated at the show.

"It's so cool to see the robots though," he says, pointing to the suits made on 3-D printers for use in the Iron Man 3 and Real Steel movies.

3-D printers have been sold commercially, to large corporations with deep pockets like carmakers and aerospace companies, for more than 20 years.

But expiring patents, falling costs, accessible design software and smaller machines means the technology is now creeping into businesses, homes and schools.

According to analyst Wohlers Associates, the industry was worth US$2.2 billion (S$2.7 billion) in 2012, and is projected to grow to US$5.2 billion by 2020.

The technology has sparked grandiose visions of igniting the next Industrial Revolution.

Anyone, in theory, can be a manufacturer, the same way anyone today can publish a book or write their own computer game.

"It adjusts the rule books on manufacturing," says Mr Tim Heller, vice-president of global channel development at Stratasys. "Schoolchildren will ask new questions and find new ways of making things."

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