IT IS 3D is the leading 3D technology company for education in the UK. The British company also operates in other sectors including jewellery, creative arts and industry. Martin Stevens is its co-founder and CEO. He is also chairman of the London and South East Region (LASER) manufacturing alliance, dedicated to supporting and promoting manufacturing across London and the South East of the UK.
During an interesting interview, Martin Stevens talked to me about 3D printing in education but also about low cost 3D printing. According to Stevens, 3D printing has a huge potential in schools. As he says, it is all about kids’ motivation, their learning and their results in school, their careers, their creativity, and even entrepreneurialism. He strongly believes that schools and kids will make mainstream 3D printing possible.
You are very focused in the education sector, why 3D printing in education?
Along with a colleague, Trupti Patel, I decided to found IT IS 3D. We had been working together for many years in rapid prototyping before it became known as 3D printing. In 2008, we were approached by one of the RepRap designers, who wanted to design a commercial machine and needed somebody in sales and marketing. That is how we first got involved in low cost 3D printing.
We actually sold the first low cost commercial 3D printer in the world to a school in 2009 in the United Kingdom; the printer was called the RapMan, referring to Rapid Manufacturing.
We chose education as we had been selling technology products in education for some 15 years so it seemed to be the natural direction for us. Once we got down to business, we saw that the competition, mainly those selling low-cost 3D printers, was either in the commercial or industrial market or selling direct to techies and other early adopters. The only field where competition was not so great was in the education market, which suited us well.
Do you think 3D printing is absolutely necessary in every school and university today?
When we give demonstrations, presentations, and sell equipment to schools, all kids find it really exciting. So first of all, from a motivational point of view, it’s a fantastic piece of technology to offer children in school.
Secondly, this technology will be used in so many different sectors during their lives. Therefore this is an opportunity for them to learn a valuable technology, if they choose to have a career in the creative, digital, engineering, medical, jewellery or many other sectors. All of these areas will have 3D printing involved so it’s a relevant piece of technology to future careers.
Another interesting aspect is that, if you sit 5 or 6 year old children in front of a table with toilet rolls, glue, paper, stickers, pens and say “Let’s be creative, let’s make something”, they are wonderfully creative. Nonetheless, children tend to lose that creativity during their schooling. For us, what is important is not so much the 3D printing but learning how to design, how to be creative, how to be innovative in 3D. 3D printers are then ideal as a means of producing a final product. At the end of the day, a 3D printer is a tool, and if you cannot design in 3D all that you can do with it is print out other people’s models; as a learning tool, that is not really very useful. For us, active in 3D printing, it is a mechanism; it is all about the kids, their learning, their excitement, their careers, but it is also about their school results, their creativity, and other things like entrepreneurialism.
Teachers say “We are all going to do a project now, and I want you to think about and work on a certain area, let’s say for example, disability. All of you know somebody who has some sort of physical problem. It may be your grandmother who’s got arthritis in her hands. I want you to think about a specific problem and I want you to design something to solve that problem. Don’t just think about how you are going to design it but also focus on who is going to buy it, how will they use it, how much might they pay for it, how much will it cost you and how you will make it”. The chances are that when they come to print their design, it will fail. Getting it wrong is probably the most important part of learning because you learn from your mistakes and thinking about “how can I make that better?”. In education, 3D printing is about design and creativity, but it is also about technology and engineering. It solves a lot of problems in school; it is a great tool to make things happen for the kids.
How can 3D printing really be incorporated into schools?
It can be difficult. One of the reasons is that the teachers are usually not very competent or confident technically so they need machines and technologies which make it easy for them to learn and then to teach others. Once we went into a primary school where we had sold our equipment and the teachers were having difficulty following the instructions. My colleague who was doing the training asked for some kids to take part of the training as well. A group of 10 year old boys were saying to the teachers “It’s alright, we’ll explain it afterwards, we’ve got it”. So there is a problem, it is difficult for teachers to learn.
The other reason is that to make 3D printing work in schools, it has to become part of the curriculum. Therefore, one of the things that we are working on is to create material that teachers can use, such as lesson plans and learning tools, so that all teachers can make effective use of 3D printing.
In schools there are different reactions to new technologies. In a normal distribution you have 20% early adopters, who are very keen on the technology and who say “OK, I’m not sure how I will use it but I’ll sort something out”. And then you have 20% at the other end of the curve, who say “I’m going to be retiring in the next fifteen years, I don’t have time to learn this”. Finally, you have the 60% in the middle who can see the value but need somebody to make it easy for them. We are working on making it easier for the 60% in the middle to adopt it by providing them with curriculum materials.
Our other angle is that rather than just provide schools with 3D printers, we offer a portfolio of interrelated 3D products which help to maximise the benefit of 3D printers in education. These additional products include: 3D scanners to turn physical objects into virtual 3D files; 3D cloud-based training on a range of 3D CAD packages (for both teachers and pupils); 3D creative design platform with haptics (force feedback on the special 3D mouse, so that designing happens both visually and kinaesthetically – think of it as virtual clay modelling); 3D stereoscopic visualisation so that subjects can be taught in virtual 3D; 3D machining and of course 3D printers.
What are the uses of 3D printing in the curriculum?
The name of the key subject varies from one country to another. In the UK we have a subject called Design & Technology so 3D printing falls naturally within that subject. Every school has to teach D&T but they can use lots of different tools, they don’t have to use 3D printing. The advantage of 3D printing is that it is simple. Whatever the kids design, it can be printed so there are no constraints, no restrictions.
There is a part of the D&T curriculum called Resistant Materials (hard materials), where 3D printing enables children to create good quality products. They are supposed to design something and then make it. When the examiners look at what they have done, they are looking to see how good it is. So it fits well there.
Having said that, we think it is a tremendous loss for schools and all the other pupils not studying D&T to think about 3D printing only in terms of Design and Technology. We believe all children have native creativity and this technology is a great way of harnessing it. Whatever subject they study, they should have the opportunity of at least exploring designing in 3D and having the excitement of seeing their design being printed. Maybe they cannot manage these projects in the classroom, but they can be completed in after school classes or clubs. Also, whatever subject is being taught, you can reinforce academic learning with physical objects. You can make what is being taught come alive. Therefore, we think that 3D printing should be treated as a whole school investment, not just dedicated to one subject.
We see the education market being divided in four parts:
The first part is primary (elementary) schools, where young kids love technology, and could benefit enormously. Unfortunately, these schools are often very small and budgets are also very small. For this reason, it is quite difficult to get this technology into elementary schools. We are exploring a print service for primary schools rather than expecting them to buy a machine.
The main core of our business is in secondary schools, high schools. The pupils are aged from 11-18 and 3D printing is a great addition to every level of education; in these schools, learning tends to be more academic than vocational, but practical learning is still a key part of the process. Some pupils at either 14 or 16 and up to 18, move into the FE (Further Education) sector and in these FE colleges, where teaching and learning are more vocationally oriented, 3D printing is a great technology for them to learn technical, creative, commercial and employability skills.
In universities, there are lots of departments which may use 3D printing such as medical, architectural or creative departments. However, it is more difficult for us to supply these, as it is not easy to find all the potential users. Also, sometimes universities will invest in much more expensive 3D printers, if their projects demand them. They may spend $25,000 or $50,000+ for a more sophisticated machine.
“3D’s central remit is to democratize 3D digital technologies for everyone”. Can you further explain?
This is a technology which should be made available to everyone so that they can explore designing. There are many people who might love to design, but never had the tools before. First of all, what is important is the price of the machines, which need to be available at a reasonable level which people can afford. More important is the reliability of the printers; they need to be consistent in printing and easy for the general public to use. And lastly, again, it comes back to this point about design; people need to have tools that enable them to design so that they can then print. That’s what we are trying to help people achieve.
It is having design tools, it is price and it is having a 3D printer which is as easy to use as a paper printer. We are getting closer year by year but 3D printing is still much easier if you are a technologist or an engineer than if you have no background in this subject. I think that the real issue is the reliability and ease of use of the machines.
Can your products be used in every sector?
Broadly yes, they are generic, although machines at the low cost end cannot compete with high cost machines. We have many industrial customers who use our equipment. Yesterday we were training an industrial customer who bought all of our products for designing door furniture, such as letter boxes and locks (they wanted rapid prototyping, creative design and scanning) and the following week, we were demonstrating structured light scanning to a company making medical parts.. As another example, we visited a centre in London today where they have perhaps the best jewellery design school in the world. Classes are very small and it is all about learning how to become a good jeweller using their hands and traditional craft skills. And now they have incorporated 3D printing. However, they tend to use more expensive machines like Solidscape and EnvisionTEC, which can cost around £15,000. For a jeweller who wants to make larger and less detailed pieces of jewellery like buckles, belts or broaches, that’s fine, they can use low-cost 3D printers. But if they want to print rings and very small, delicate items, the low-cost 3D printers are not yet good enough.
What is the cheapest price of a 3D printer?
The lowest price that we have seen so far on the web was a company which went on the Kickstarter recently with a machine priced at $99 (this company had to cancel their Kickstarter). The public objected to the fact that they were trying to make money on the materials instead. Also, I really do not believe that you can make a good 3D printer at a very low price because one of the important things about making a good 3D printer is it has to be rigid. If the printer can flex, or move, you are not going to get good prints. In my opinion, if a 3D printer costs less than about £750 (ours is great value at £895), you need to question the quality. So I reckon that probably one of the best low end (but not low cost) 3D printers at the moment in the world is the Ultimaker which costs over €2,000. One of the reasons why this machine is good is because it is very strong, it is very solid. There is also the Chinese UP! printer mostly made out of metal parts. And again, that is quite strong and rigid. When you make machines cheaply and just use plastics and acrylics, you often don’t get as good results.
What is the acceptance of 3D printing by British educational establishments?
In universities it is fine, they use their 3D printers.
Many schools have been investing in 3D printing over the past 5 years, but a lot of these machines are not being used for several reasons. One, the original machines were not very reliable. So even if schools succeeded in assembling the machines and making them work, they didn’t work very well. Secondly, a lot of machines were bought without the school thinking “how am I going to use this?”; so they bought the machine and then thought “what do I do now? ”. Also, if schools buy machines from big companies like 3D Systems or Stratasys, it can be difficult for schools to afford the higher ongoing cost of material.
Up to the middle of last year, education policy in the UK was all about academic learning, about learning facts. But there was a huge push by industry and by other people interested in technology saying “This is no good, we will need future employees who understand STEM, technology, science, engineering, we need people who can code, who can program”. So in the middle of last year (2013) there was a change in the educational atmosphere, with emphasis on STEM subjects and the introduction of coding in the curriculum.
The UK Government bought a small number of 3D printers to put them in schools as a trial project but have not yet delivered them all. There is also a very wealthy entrepreneur called Luke Johnson who wants to put a 3D printer in every UK school. We are working with him to see how it can best be done. We hope that this will happen in 2015.
Regarding the British politician Michael Gove’s statement “There should be a 3D printer in every school“, do you think that every school and every household will be equipped with a 3D printer?
There are around 4,000 secondary schools and 250 FE colleges in the UK and I think that 3D printers will be delivered over the next two years to all those schools and colleges thanks to the project of the entrepreneur that I mentioned before. For the 20,000 primary schools it will take longer.
Why should a household have a 3D printer? There is a lot of discussion about that on the internet. I think in order for 3D printers to be used at home, you need a killer app. And for us, that killer app is kids making their own toys, making presents for their families and for their friends, and being able to create their own environment. All young people love to be the same but they also want to be different. Kids like to play the same games as their friends, so for example they play with Legos but with 3D printing they can also make parts which are special to them. I think that is what young people will want to do as soon as they have the tools to do so. I think it will start to happen next year or the year after but it will probably take 10 to 15 years before a majority of homes own a machine.
One of the things that we love about 3D printing in school is that it is completely neutral as far as gender is concerned. Very often, technology is “toys for boys”. If children are using 3D printing they can design and print anything. We show kids different models such as an engine block, a household item like a juicer or a bracelet, so that they get the idea that whatever they are interested in, they can print it. It is as much of interest to girls as it is to boys. It’s really a technology that allows everyone to be involved, it doesn’t matter the gender, the country where they live or how old they are.
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