Smart kids and 3D printers

Thanks to my co-worker Brooks, I had an opportunity to sit with my Thing-o-Matic and a loaner Replicator (thanks Makerbot!) at the ACE Academy Innovation Fair here in Austin yesterday. The Innovation Fair was kind-of like a normal school science fair, but included guest speakers, a proclamation from the mayor (officially it became “ACE Academy Innovation Day” yesterday), and more. Unlike normal science fairs where kids have dioramas of the earth’s layers, or maybe a hamster in a maze, these kids had exhibits like new, innovative forms of lightning rods for houses, cool robots, 3D LED matrix cubes, and a new type of “flame in a can” over which they were roasting marshmallows.

I knew the day was going to be awesome when as soon as we put the Replicator on the table, a tiny little girl (I say in the 6-year-old range – no lie) complete with plaid dress, bows in hair, and glittery shoes walks up and asks excitedly “Is that a 3D printer?” to which I, in shock, replied it was. “That’s so awesome! Well I’ll be back when you’re printing something.”

We couldn’t get the 3D printers going fast enough for the swarm of kids who were so excited to see them. “I’ve seen these on YouTube” and “I sooooo want one!” were the cries as we loaded up models into ReplicatorG and waiting for extruders to heat up. We would have used the SD card option, but Brooks had redone the model the night before, so we just went straight from computer.

One of the first boys at the table looked at me quizzically and pointedly asked “You’re running Windows on a Mac?” “Yes,” I replied, “but I use Bootcamp so I can run Windows or OSX. And I use a Mac at home”. “Oh, we’ll that’s okay then”. Whew! I thought I had a credibility issue before we really even got started.

Brooks had designed a rocket ship in Rhino, and laid out a plate of six for the Replicator to output. We got the file going and 20 minutes in we realized it still had over 3-1/2 hours left—a time well after the fair shut down and everyone would be gone. D’oh! So Brooks fired up Rhino and exported a single version. At least we’d be able to get a few done before the day was done.

All that was missing was popcorn

I had a rocket I had designed running on my Thing-o-Matic so there was activity while we were getting the single rocket going on the Replicator. Kids had pulled up chairs and were immediately mesmerized by the non-stop layering of plastic.

While we got questions from parents about how it worked, the kids all seemed to know, and the few who didn’t were quickly schooled by the ones who did. One kid said we should “video record the machine, then take it into a video editor and compress the time so we can watch it faster” to which another kid jumped in “there’s already time-lapse video on YouTube of that – it starts at the bottom and just *whooosh*” and made a motion with his hands of an object being formed from nothing.

One kid asked me if I could 3D print a cube, to which I said that you can print anything you can imagine, so yes, I could print a cube. “No, not just a cube… A cube that has a hinged lid that opens up and drinks… Like that guy there drinking his water… It drinks things around it and sucks them all into a black-hole.” OH! THAT kind of cube. So so awesome.

The parents were astounded by the technology—and the price—and took postcard after postcard that Makerbot had supplied, explaining how their kid could prototype this or that invention they were working on. I get the feeling that quite a few lucky kids are going to be having Replicators soon. Some of the kids asked how much they were and I joked that they’d have to work hard over the summer to earn enough (to which they just looked at me in that bemused “my parents could own you” way). I LOL’d.

The final countdown!

The kids would get super-excited during the final seconds of each 3D print, counting down out-loud and almost cheering when complete. As more and more rockets were getting done, kids were playing with them and enjoying all the other items I had brought.

When a few of the rockets’ fins got broken off, that gave us the perfect opportunity to explain to both the kids and the concerned parents that we didn’t care, we’d just print another one.

The day was a total blast (no pun intended), with lots of great discussion with parents and kids, seeing both group’s eyes light up as they pondered the possibilities. I’m happy to have been part of such a cool event. Thanks Brooks and ACE Academy!

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