MakerBots are coming soon to a classroom near you. Photo via Flickr
At the start of this year, President Obama nicely summed up the grandiose promise of 3D printing—or rather, the hype surrounding it. In his State of the Union address the president suggested the fledgling technology could save manufacturing by ushering in a second industrial revolution.
That shout-out inspired a spate of buzzkill blog posts pointing out—rightly enough—that despite its potential, 3D printing is still in its infancy. It's not the panacea for the struggling economy we want it to be, at least not yet.
Apparently the naysayers weren't enough to kill the 3D-printing dream, because today, with support from the federal government, MakerBot announced its initiative to put a 3D printer in every school in America. The tech startup and the administration are betting big that teaching kids 3D printing is teaching them the skills they’ll need as tomorrow's engineers, designers, and inventors.
"It can change the whole paradigm of how our children will see innovation and manufacturing in America," MakerBot CEO Bre Pettis said in today's announcement.
That bet is predicated on a big assumption: that the 3D printing phenomenon will translate into real-world jobs for future generations. At this early stage in the game, that's easy to say, and much harder to know.
For techno-utopianists, it's a tempting thought that a new innovation could create jobs in the industry technology's been blamed for killing. For DIY enthusiasts, the trend represents the future of decentralized manufacturing. From the government's perspective, 3D printers in schools is an attempt to inspire kids to go into STEM careers—the fields where the economy is actually growing, and where the US is losing its competitive edge.
The reality is, none of that means the move will bring about a third industrial revolution. The possibilities of 3D printing are super cool, sci-fi level stuff, and the market is booming. This is all true. But it's still a niche market that's yet to penetrate beyond hobbyist circles, and isn't about to anytime soon. And while some students will set out to be industrial engineers, CAD designers, or entrepreneurs—and an exceptional few may get to build rocket parts in Space X's Iron Man-inspired workspace—for many more kids, "additive manufacturing" won't be a driving force in their professional lives.
At this point, what 3D printing is really revolutionizing is the prototyping process—and that's important in its own right, because it means a shift in thinking. When it's faster and easier to experiment with new projects or research, it encourages creativity and new ideas, which everyone's banking is the future of the global economy. To that end, MakerBot's proposed curriculum for the technology is full of 21st-century buzz concepts like design thinking and digital fabrication.
The company is crowdsourcing the money to get the expensive machines in teachers' hands. Educators sign up with DonorsChoose.org, an education crowdfunding site, where they can raise all but $98 of the $2,550 cost of the printer, materials, and service plan from MakerBot. The school has to come up with the rest of the cash on its own, to discourage folks from taking jumping on the bandwagon only to leave the high-tech printers to gather dust in the corner. Pettis said he’s also shelling out "a lot" of money from his own pocket for the first round of schools in Brooklyn, where the startup's based.
At the end of the day, introducing any emerging technology that can add new dimensions to an outdated, memorization-based learning model is a probably a good idea. It shows the education system is trending toward more practical curriculum—a win for students everywhere who whined, "Why do I have to learn this if I'm never going to use it in real life?"