Perspectives 09.12.2013

The Rapid Prototype Generation Has Arrived

By Scott Dansereau

Great emphasis has been placed on increasing the competitiveness of US schools as compared with the world’s academic systems. I recently witnessed one program doing just that. When my colleague Rick Young asked me to contact a leader at his daughter’s school, I thought I would just be sharing my experiences with our two Makerbot 3D printers. Instead, I learned about a program at Chicago’s Nettlehorst School called Dig-8, which gives grade-school students a crash course in entrepreneurship and product design.

Through my correspondence with Ted, we arranged for a group of students to tour our office and get a hands-on demonstration of our digital fabrication process, using programs such as Revit, AutoCAD 3D and SketchUp. We also had a Makerbot chugging away that they crowded around and watched intently.

By far, the most engaging part of the day was the original rapid prototyper  – the hot wire cutter. The children were shown some of the complex models and forms that can be created, and were each set loose with their own block of foam to slice and dice. The students appreciated foam prototyping for the same reasons we appreciate it as designers – immediate feedback of our design decisions, otherwise known as instant gratification.

The student’s level of engagement and understanding of 3D modeling concepts was impressive. In fact, these ten and eleven-year-olds grasped ideas that are typically introduced in high school and college. It is clear that through exposure to programs like Dig-8, students will enter high education with a breadth of knowledge and experience that will force educators to develop even more advanced curricula.

The Dig-8 program starts with students as young as second grade and runs through eighth. Participants of the program take a product from brainstorming through 3D model development, rapid prototyping and, in some cases, to production of working prototypes. Following that, they develop marketing plans and pitch-packages for their products. Recently, one class successfully raised money for their product on Kickstarter!

Students are ushered through the entire design process early enough to help inform their high school and college focus. During their visit, Ted told me that a trip to a large trucking logistics operation had prompted a young girl to declare, “This stuff is so interesting. I want to do this when I get older!” With programs like these, students are exposed to career options they may never have considered. 

With the acquisition costs for technology falling to incredibly low levels, institutional programs like Dig-8 are not the only avenue for exploration. 3D printers that were difficult to operate and cost tens of thousands of dollars are now a fraction of that and can be operated by almost anyone. Modeling software is cross platform and free. Although household adoption hasn’t become widespread yet, there are a number of places to access 3D printers already.

One such place is the “Innovation Lab” at the Harold Washington Central Public Library in Chicago. This facility provides the public free access to advanced programs like AutoCAD and Photoshop, as well as laser cutters and 3D printers. Not only are they providing these tools, but on-site expertise is available as well.

Similarly, GE is bringing their highly interactive GE Garage program to Chicago this month. Launched at SXSW in 2012, the GE Garage brings together a number of emerging manufacturing technologies and companies for public workshops. 3D printing, laser cutters and electronics design are juxtaposed with traditional fabrication techniques such as welding in an attempt to illustrate the ways these processes interrelate in the production environment.

The 3D Experience is a Kinko’s-like business that gives everyone access to digital fabrication processes and services. As a customer, you can bring your idea to them and have it designed, 3D printed, laser cut and more. Stores like this are popping up in cities all over the United States. 

With all of these options, students today are coming to school equipped and experienced in ways that seemed like science fiction just a few years ago. School systems are taking note of this shift and are refocusing their technology efforts. On my current architecture project, a high school in the suburbs of Chicago, we have found the administration preparing for transition by blanketing the school with WiFi and charging stations for the laptops and devices their students bring from home. Our designers and the school administration have begun to consider the ways their traditional computer labs can be repurposed for the next big educational shift.

Our economy today is built on different principals than it was fifty or sixty years ago at the peak of domestic manufacturing. While we are now accustomed to the products we depend on being built in factories thousands of miles away, this will not always be the case. Programs like Dig-8 are preparing students to understand prototyping technology early, engaging in the creative process that brings new ideas to life. The Rapid Prototype Generation has arrived.