For their 2016 holiday season, Mattel announced that they are going to release a 3D printer targeted at children that costs $300. The ThingMaker will also accompany software specially designed for young innovators. This printer is expected to introduce young innovators to be ready for the design heavy future of 3D printing. Already, 3D printing is creating a buzz in technologies such as additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping. The industry itself today amounts to $4 billion since its inception thirty years ago. However, end users or consumers have not been able to reap the benefits of 3D printing until recently. Industrial scale 3D printers cost thousands of dollars, fabricating parts from materials that cost even more than the ones used in consumer goods. Yet, 3D printing at consumer level has become popular in the last ten years due to the fact that there are inexpensive, personal printers available in the market.
One of the successful projects was the immensely popular RepRap in Britain and US based [email protected] After this more than 100,000 3D printers optimized for the desktop were sold in the US alone in 2014. However, most of these machines even though inexpensive are more than often not suitable for children’s use due to safety issues. There are hot nozzles, various moving parts and plates that can injure children, while there are other maintenance issues such as unclogging clogged nozzles, leveling the building plates etc. that cannot be done by children. All of this work needed to be done by hand in a precise manner.
Mattel’s innovative approach is being met with mixed reactions. Some think that the technology is too young for the consumer market for children. Well yes, children are young indeed but they often can grasp technology faster than adults can. If the 3D printers are truly made kid-friendly, then the possibilities can be endless for our next generation of innovators.
Other types of solutions became popular for college students such as the Innovation Station set up at Cockrell School of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin. Students could experience the wonders of 3D printing first hand at their campus. The research is being conducted at the University of Texas at Austin where Innovation Station has been made to operate in vending machine style. This provides open access to 3D printing for students on campus. Researchers have extensively studied the one thousand parts that have been created through Innovation Station to get an idea about what kind of objects may appeal to a younger audience when 3D printing is readily available to them. More than often, the objects created are not creative in particular as they tend to be copies of already existing objects. However, the makers were still happy to be able to hold their own creation in their hands. According to Sociologists, this is called the IKEA effect which is based on the fact that we have more value for things that we create by ourselves. Even if they are not expert quality objects, we still have a special place in our hearts for things we have created.
3D printers allow students to create parts by themselves, also requiring little or no training, fewer risks of safety, less time and no other tools compared to other methods such as carving, molding or machining. In the hands of children, these effects are magnified as they can create exciting objects without taking into account mistakes or any imperfections. This is truly a great and new creative outlet.
When children adopt 3D printing, they can create amazing things such as many different versions of superheroes, customized self-styled jewelry or caricatures of their own images. They can break out of the purely virtual experience of technology and can actually experience the delight of making things. University students often print out parts that are downloadable from sites such as GrabCAD or Thingiverse. They often like to customize the available blueprints and make their own cool things. A student printed out a chessboard that had the Texas Longhorn logo embedded in the chess pieces. Another 3D printed a locket that had a personal message. In the hands of children, the weirdest imaginary friends can get life in their 3D printed form.
Children are great as extreme innovation examples. They have zero technical solution knowledge which is otherwise common in adults, that is, adults would probably consult the internet when a child uses his imagination. They have no notion of what is possible and what is not possible to make conventionally. Hence, they are less likely to stick to existing designs and will unleash their creative imagination. If such massive design freedom is given to them at such an early age then they will not be designing in pre-made mental boxes like adults do. Engineers and architects often struggle to escape these design limitations that children do not have hard wired in them. This can help unleash a new generation of engineers who have never before seen levels of 3D creativity and imagination. What fun!
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