3D printing is revolutionising the North East – from the classroom to the workplace.
The method sees successive layers of material laid down under computer control, producing a 3D model.
The process of using a digital file to make three-dimensional objects – born in the 1980s by Chuck Hull – is already enhancing, and in some ways replacing, the way ordinary things have been done in the past.
To many, this technology is the way of the future.
While it has become increasingly hyped in recent years, 3D printing is not new, but it is becoming more popular and machines are getting cheaper, according to Chris Thorpe, co-founder at I Can Make, currently based in Newcastle city centre.
He said: “At the moment 3D printers are being used to create prosthetics and there are user-created dolls being made with 3D printing.”
From NASA commissioning a project to create a 3D printer to make pizzas for astronauts, to a Newcastle surgeon making a 3D pelvis for a man who lost his to cancer, 3D printing is now turning the impossible into the possible.
“It is going to change a lot about how the world will work in ways I can’t predict right now, which is quite exciting,” said Will McElderry, organiser of the 3D Thursdays event at MakerSpace, based in Newcastle.
“It’s all about capturing imagination. There are lots of things that can be done with 3D printers.”
Perhaps most impactful in the North East is the way the technology will re-shape industries over time, like manufacturing.
Chris and his team at I Can Make are using 3D printers to publish digital products for kids. They are hoping that by exposing young children to the technology now, the future generation will be empowered to re-frame industries such as manufacturing in an interesting way.
Manufacturing’s share of total UK economic output has been in steady decline for many decades from its peak in the early 1970s. The UK now imports more than what is exported, according to government figures released last month.
As an industry key to the region, we reported last month that local business leaders were calling for the government to support the SME manufacturing and engineering firms in the North East.
These efforts, along with others, are a cry for manufacturing to make a strong comeback to the region.
“The reason we do things in China and India is because the labour is cheap. We want to get the cost of labour down,” Chris said. “If we can educate kids, we can bring manufacturing back to the North East where there is a strong engineering culture and where it is still alive. That’s why it’s important now.”
As 3D printing is becoming prolific in the tech world, it is still foreign to many people unaware of its capabilities.
Dean Vipond, co-founder at I Can Make, said this is where their team comes in. He added: “I think the part we have to play in this is to take what is currently an alien concept to a lot of people and make it approachable.
“When people see a 3D printer now it looks like magic, and what we want to point out to people is what they can do with it through our very simple kits and learning materials that go along with it.”
I Can Make plan to take their first range of downloadable, printable model kits, which launch this month, to schools. The kits will be printable on various 3D printers and can be brought to life using motors and LEDs.
“It’s quite amazing to see the kids really get into it,” said Chris. “We’re really quite blown away by the questions they ask, like what else can they make using 3D printing. And they come up with quite complex ideas and what other materials can be used.”
Becky Fishman, co-founder at I Can Make, said: “We want to introduce this into a classroom or in a home, and then teachers can teach it in an accessible way.
“That’s a crucial step and we have the window now to see that happen.”
But also of concern is the lack of girls and women in engineering. Moving forward it is key to break gender bias when it comes to using the technology.
Mark Simpkins, another co-founder at I Can Make, said there are preconceptions about the genders who would play with this sort of technology. Sparked by this interest, the team created a Gender and Toys survey aimed at assessing the toys that children of both genders enjoy.
He said: “We’re doing this for boys and girls.
“We’re really fascinated by how we can break this gender bias. It’s wrong and it’s holding girls back massively.”
Dean added to this, saying on a larger scale the lack of women in engineering roles is holding the industry back.
As Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah has already been campaigning to place more women in technical, IT and engineering roles, Dean said this will only benefit the industry.
He said: “The way the tech industry is now there are some startups that have toxic cultures around them. We want to make sure there’s a broader group of people entering the industry.”
As for the future of 3D printing and its accessibility in a broader reach, Chris says the first thing that will drive adoption in the market is the cost of machines coming down.
He said: “The more important thing is content and machines that are user-friendly.”
With a market of 3D printed products predicted to reach $21 billion worldwide by 2020, Will says 3D printing has the means to be disruptive in a way that will change the world.
“I like the fact that it is the future in many ways,” he said. “The adoption of 3D printers means that when I have kids, they’ll have a lead on user technology and using technology not yet known. There’s still a lot of uniqueness to fill.”
To take part in I Can Make’s Gender and Toys survey visit http://genderandtoys.icanmake.co/ .