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."
On the other side of the globe, Asia is raring to shed its low-cost, low-tech image and move into high-end design, traditionally the forte of the West.
"It's too soon to say whether this 'think it, print it' technology will level the playing field," says Ms Linor.
So far in Asia, state support through education has been limited to the tertiary level - for example, to fund Singapore's Nanyang Technology University's Additive Manufacturing Centre and research centres under China's 3-D Printing Technology Industry Alliance - and has not trickled down to other schools.
It could just be a matter of time as competition heats up. Australia recently announced Victoria state and Melbourne University are training teachers in the technology and incorporating them into school curriculums.
Meanwhile, industry players are more than happy to help, with free machines and advice on how to use them in the classroom. Their primary motive? The bottom line.
"The schools buy our machines," says Ms Linor matter-of-factly.
"Also, we are educating the students with our technology in the hope that they will be our next generation of customers."
From gnomes to car parts: How it works
A conventional printer sprays ink on paper to produce an image. Replace the ink with gooey plastic, and run the printer several thousand times over the same surface, and the layers eventually build up to form a plastic model of that image, one you can hold in your hand. This, in essence, is 3-D printing.
Like printing a document in .pdf or .doc, the printer receives directions from a computer file, in this case, a computer-aided design file such as .obj or .stl.
3D Systems co-founder Charles Hull made the first commercial 3-D printer in 1986. Since then, the technology, also called additive manufacturing, has extended from making prototypes and parts for large industries like car-making and aerospace, to producing spectacles, medical prosthetics, film props, jewellery and even 3-D printers themselves.
New materials - fed into the printer as filaments and heated up - are constantly being discovered, but the common ones are plastic, clay, metal and even chocolate.
Driving the hype today is the availability of personal use printers the size of a mini bar that cost as little as US$500 (S$620), free software and online communities like thingiverse.com which upload design files for anyone to use.
Anyone, in theory, can design and manufacture items, without the usual barriers to entry such as fixed capital investment and economies of scale. But there are limitations.
3-D supervisor Jet Cooper at Propshop, which makes film props like Thor's hammer and models of the Aston Martin DB5 featured in the movie Skyfall, said the technology has halved his costs.
"About 95 per cent of our orders are now 3-D printed and we save time by outsourcing the printing," he said. "But we are restricted by the range of materials available so our modellers still embellish and finish a prop by hand."
Indeed, far from replacing mass manufacturing, existing 3-D printing hardware seems best suited for low-volume, customised products. MakerBot's Replicator 2, for example, took 21/2 hours to print one 15cm plastic gnome.
"In 10 years' time, the majority of manufacturers will have some sort of 3-D printing incorporated into their process," said Stratasys vice-president of global channel development Tim Heller. "At the consumer level, maybe only 1 per cent of users currently have a printer in their home."
It is also years from being a must-have household appliance. Futurists envision a housewife printing spare parts for her refrigerator at home, using a file from the fridge-maker.
"In another 10 to 15 years' time, maybe,"said Mr Heller.
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