Revolution is in the air!

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There’s a revolution in design coming. Martyn Day can feel it in his bones. Now everyone has free access to 3D design tools and has the ability to ‘3D print’in their bedrooms, will we get a raft of new James Dysons?
There was a time when the next great products came from sketches on the back of cigarette packets and were built in a garden shed out of plywood or cut up Tupperware, held together by odd rusty screws and glue.

As a child, I fondly remember building a less than waterproof submarine out of Lego, while my friend Peter built an East Lancs canal barge, for his Action Man, from an old varnished shoe box. Them were the days, making good out of Lego and crap.

What of today’s generation? Well, when not surgically attached to their ‘Xstations’ and ‘Wii-boxes’, or watching reality TV that mainly involves people whose every other word is ‘like’, or considering getting
a ‘Vajazzle’; one wonders if they would be interested in designing something other than their next tattoo?

The schooling figures would demonstrate that the sciences are in decline. The number taking A-level physics has dropped by 38% over the past 15 years. There was a 45% decline in numbers of electrical engineering students between 2001 and 2006 and 60% of those that were went on to do something other than electrical engineering.

This is mirrored in the US with a 43% drop in those studying science degrees in the same period. Yes, I am afraid to say, the majority of the generation raised on ‘Super Mario Kart’ and Celebrity Big Brother are more than likely to be tomorrow’s ‘slacker’ Business Studies students. The damage is done. If you want to raise an engineer, you have to get them young.

There is, however, a glimmer of hope; new free or cheap ’toys’ are starting to come on the market that could become as ubiquitous as games consoles, allowing any smart kid with an idea to ideate and fabricate it from their home PC. The ‘Lego’ of the 21st Century is an intuitive 3D modeller and a 3D printer.

Software

Getting kids into 3D is essential. Lego Digital Designer, for creating designs with Lego standard parts, has a certain charm. Google SketchUp, still a popular favourite for novices and professionals of any age, is free and, with experience, fairly useful.

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Dassault Systèmes had an innovative surfacing game called Cosmic Blobs but now offers a free SketchUp-like 3D tool called 3DVia Shape. However, it’s now Autodesk’s turn to leap into the market with a light version of its Fusion direct modelling technology, 123D.

This free solid modeller offers a library of over 4,000 parts, imports from SketchUp, DWG and OBJ files and has more in common with the latest professional CAD tools than a ‘virtual Lego’ kit. But modelling is really only the start. Autodesk has cut deals with Ponoko to cheaply rapid prototype people’s models in cardboard or plastic and send them back by post. 123D also supports the new generation of low-cost desktop 3D printers from Makerbot and 3D Systems.

Suddenly the power to design and fabricate becomes truly ‘democratised’ for kids and adults. In fact, there are many engineering and AEC firms that have not got this far with their designs yet!

Fabrication

The cost of 3D printing has been dropping like the proverbial stone for the last five years. MakerBot’s entry level device is just $1,299, then there’s RepRap, which is dirt cheap and almost self-replicating, Rapman from 3D Systems, Mcor’s matrix 300, which uses A4 paper and glue, Festo’s iFab can print plastics to chocolate and TU Vienna has a new LED device in development that is as small as a milk carton.

All this development is going to set in motion a massive revolution in desktop rapid prototyping. While the software I’ve mentioned is mainly aimed at kids (and architects… very similar), combining standard 3D CAD software with these machines will redefine professional ideation and model making.

Downloading free software, coming up with a design, to getting funding and building prototypes can be done from a bedroom anywhere in the world. This really is a revolution

Now look at Autodesk’s Photofly technology currently free on Autodesk Labs. Take a series of photographs of a real object and the cloud service will send you back a fairly accurate 3D mesh. This could be imported in a free CAD system such as Autodesk Fusion, enhanced, ‘remixed’ and printed. All this in free 3D software and low cost 3D printers?

Yes. Absolutely. And it’s helping drive a ‘Maker’ community, especially in the US, where wannabe designers and modifiers are using this technology to design and fabricate their own personal products, which, you never know, might just be the next big thing.

Funding

All this might be well and good but how is ‘little Timmy’ going to fund his idea and $1K 3D printing machine? Well, for example there’s a website called Kickstarter for creatives to put their ideas and ask the community to pledge funding if they want one or like it – anything from $10 to $20,000 plus.

Good ideas have seen pledges up to $1 million. So downloading free software, coming up with a design, to getting funding and building prototypes can be done from a bedroom anywhere in the world. This really is a revolution.

Conclusion

So the options for the next generation are clear; they can waste their time on Facebook looking at photos of pet dogs owned by people they hardly know, building a virtual farm or hooked on reality TV watching talentless ‘D list’ celebrities… or furthering the cause of humanity by coming up with brilliant designs, maybe making their first million by the time they are 12.

I think the first stage is to turn off the TV, because looking at the rubbish that’s broadcast, the next design revolution will not be televised.

There’s a design revolution on its way, but is it for the best?