Parents and Kids Agree: 3D Printing is Awesome

“No more 3D printing until you clean your room!” – Moms and Dads, 2014 and beyond

I can’t count how many times during my childhood my mother implored, bribed, or bargained with me to get off the computer and stop playing videogames. My mom, like so many others, wanted me to be a well-rounded kid. And to her, part of this meant playing with physical toys instead of just clicking a mouse and staring endlessly at a screen. Blocks, Legos, and even the spare building materials lying around my father’s workbench were better play things in her mind than a screen that felt so distant and detached from reality.

Fast-forward to today and I see the same struggle being played out between my older cousins and their 3- to 10-year-old kids.  Now the grand bargain is about iPad time.  “No iPad time until you help unload the car,” I heard my cousin recently say in a stern tone to her 5-year-old son.  Will there ever be a cure for this generational feud over technology? Just maybe.

Enter 3D printing

This weekend my coworkers and I had the great pleasure of manning a booth at the Santa Barbara Tinkerfest, a daylong technology fair for families.  It was also our chance to show off 3D printing to kids and parents who had never seen it before.  The response was as impressionable as it was universal – both parents and their kids love 3D printing!  Why is this?  Well, I have a pretty good hunch.

Parents were excited because, to them, 3D printing is an exciting new technology – something they’ve either read about or seen recently in the news.  They were even more amazed when we told them that soon a family would be able to buy a 3D printer for only a few hundred dollars, and that their kids could design and make their very own toys with it.  Kids, however, didn’t need that much convincing.  Upon seeing a 3D printer’s robotic motion and a physical object appearing layer-by-layer, they would quietly move in closer and just stare unblinking as if hypnotized.

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Yet the real point of engagement was still to come. Once visitors began showing up, we pulled out two iPads with our first simple 3D design app we call “Cookie Cutter.”  Quite simply, the app allowed users to drag a finger across the iPad’s screen and in a few strokes generate a 3D cookie cutter.  Another tap on the screen sent finished designs to one of three waiting 3D printers, and fifteen minutes later young designers could hold their own 3D creations in the palms of their hands.

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We needed a lot more iPads.

The crowd around the table quickly swelled to over twenty visitors, and at times parents were forced to police how much time their child spent perfecting his or her design before handing the device to the next person waiting. I looked on with a mix of delight and worry – delight that our app was such a hit and also worry that at the going rate we may never get a chance to print all the designs before the Tinkerfest ended.  We eventually got everything printed, and we happily sent home a few hundred new fans of 3D printing.

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This is just the beginning

My experience at Tinkerfest reminded me of a great story I heard at a 3D printing store in New York City a few months ago.  There, a young employee recounted how his Saturday morning 3D printing class for 8-year-olds had frequently ended with crying children dragged off to tee ball practice before the 3D object they designed had finished printing.  It also reminded me of the countless pictures I’ve seen of kids captivated by this technology when they’re first presented with it.  To me, this all goes to show that the younger generation – today’s kids and tomorrow’s young innovators – will not see 3D printing as a new and futuristic technology, but rather as an empowering and fun tool that has existed for almost as long as they can remember.  And I strongly believe that it is these people who will use 3D printing to truly change the world.

In the meantime, though, 3D printers may just be that silver bullet to please moms who want their children to engage in the physical world and kids who just want to have fun with the latest technology.  I know my mom would have loved having one around the house to entertain me when I was a kid – and I would have loved it a whole lot more than videogames.

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