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How popular is 3D printing these days and how popular was it before? Tom and Tracy Hazzard interview Brian Federal, a documentary filmmaker on a mission for the 3D Print Education Revolution. Initially, Brian started out just wanting to document the emergence of the 3D print economy, but he quickly realized that lack of education is what’s holding the revolution at bay. Today, Brian identifies the lack of 3D print education as the number one problem, and believes that ease of use and 3D print language does not serve the learning process. He then shows how teaching 3D print experimentation can help us all – young and old – eliminate the paralysis of making mistakes and taking risks.
Listen to the podcast here:
Revolutionizing 3D Print Education With Brian Federal Of Prana Communications
We have Brian Federal who’s a documentary filmmaker.
I think the most interesting thing about this is that I thought it was going to be a history lesson in a sense. You think documentary, you could think history. That’s just me. It didn’t go that way. He’s as excited as we are about the possibilities of 3D printing.
Let’s go to the interview and then we’ll talk about it after.
Brian, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m Brian Federal. I got excited about 3D printing several years ago. I started researching the subject and found that there was nobody that was documenting this time in history where we were taking the digital and making it physical. I saw that as something that was going to be quite important and a huge shift in manufacturing. I went out doing filmed interviews with people in the industry.
I understand from your website you’re a glassblower.
That’s how I got started on the project. I have a degree in Glass Blowing and I’m interested in biomimicry and also architecture. I was looking at diatoms, which are small organisms that live in the ocean that have interesting geometric patterns to them. I was looking at some electron microscopy photographs of them and trying to figure out how I could get those and put into CAD. In that process, I ran into 3D printing, which I knew about. As I dug into the story a little bit further, I got bitten by the 3D bug. I saw how this was going to change much about many industries in many ways that I got how important this was. The first person I called was Terry Wohlers, who’s probably the number one consultant. He puts together all the numbers and information and an incredibly nice fellow. I said, “Terry, I’m trying to put together how 3D printing began. I’m looking at making a movie.” He’s like, “That’s an interesting idea, but I don’t know if anybody’s going to want to see it.”
I was saying this. I am excited about your film because we went to watch Print the Legend, thinking it was going to be documentary history. It was like a Steve Jobs wannabe. I was disappointed.
I think the film was incredibly well-done and well-crafted, Print the Legend. It’s a wonderful story of our time looking at the startup culture with 3D printing, being that culture that was documented. It didn’t tell people about here’s this technology, this is how people are using it, and here are some things. Maybe you could do it that. That’s what my focus is. It’s more about helping people understand what they might be able to do with the technology to empower any idea they have of bringing it into the physical world.
I think that’s going to be a lot more of interest to a wider audience out there.
There are a lot of people interested in startup culture also. The film is done well and they did a great job on that.
When we went to watch it, we wanted to know about 3D printing. We wanted a history lesson. We wanted to understand the genesis of the art and design of it and how it came about to understand what we can do with it.
What was the interest? When I started the project, I would say out of twenty people that I spoke with, maybe 1 or 2 of them even knew what 3D printing was. I remember in the beginning when I would talk to people about it, they would still be thinking in the 2D because that’s how their mind was trained to think. There would be this moment when people get the idea that this is 3D you can put it in your hand. When their mind gets that idea, they have a little bit of a meltdown for a minute. Their mind starts going and then they start to realize the potential of the technology.
It’s interesting because it has been around a long time for sure, but it was never called 3D printing until several years with the desktop 3D printing coming to be in college. After that, it was always called stereolithography. That was the term that was used. It seemed that there were different kinds of processes available for 3D printing, usually high-end processes only for rich, large corporations that could afford it. It wasn’t talked about as one big industry. It was a little niche opportunity if you could afford it.
It was used primarily for iteration of different product designs from high-end industrial design shops. It was relegated to that pretty much exclusively. We’ve started looking at this technology as a way to make a final product. We still have a way to go to make that a reality, but I do believe that will come to pass in time.
What do you think are some of the things that are holding it back from becoming a final product?
After all the research I’ve done and all the people I’ve talked to, the one glaring thing that is apparent to me is the lack of education. It’s not only education for the students. I was at a school one time and they had some 3D printers delivered. The kids were literally hanging onto the boxes. One kid was sitting there with this finger. The teacher said, “You all stay away from that.” He was taking his fingers and trying to open the box. Another kid had his arms around the box. The kids are ready for this, but the system that we find ourselves in and education in America and don’t get me started. I’ve been researching education and looking at this issue, trying to figure out what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s needed.
The more I dig into where we are in education in America, I say that we have a deep systemic problem. We’re in a new hyper-connected internet world of free information and the institution of education has had a hard time catching up with that because it’s like a giant ship moving through the ocean that needs to make a 90-degree turn. The ship is so big that you’d have to have 50 meetings and three laws passed in order to make that right turn. I don’t want to slam educators because I do believe there are people out there whose heart is in the right place around educating. I’m sure that all of us can think of one teacher in our education that felt like they invested in you and you felt there was something that helped build your self-esteem through learning.
One of our episodes with John Bokla, that’s where we got hooked up with this program, which goes from age 5 to 15. We started working on that with our six-year-old and she’s barely learned to read and she’s already loving it and can’t wait to 3D print. It’s an interesting conundrum though as we’re looking and going into first grade. The fine arts center we have here in Irvine has no program and we’re looking at that going, “What can we do about it?” You’re right. The education system isn’t built to handle it. The educators can’t find a place to get educated, which is a problem. The school districts, if they even have money, which is doubtful. They can’t bring in someone because everybody is locked, especially here in California in terms of you have to go through with the certification program and all of that. The people who know how to 3D print don’t have education degrees and certifications even though they’re the ones that could teach this the best. They can’t bring them in the school. You have a big problem. There are some affluent schools like charter schools and other things that can bring in professionals. You’re talking about not your general public school.
I haven’t formulated my final thoughts on this because I’m still in research, but it looks to me like what we may have to do to solve this problem, may have to exist outside the system of education. The beauty of looking at that is that we have such incredible connectivity through the internet. The internet is the foundation of all of these shifts that we see because it’s a network device. We lived in a top-down world where there was a top and then everything came down. If you look at the foundation of the world we’re in, it’s a networked world. People that get that idea are successful with business and things of that nature because the top-down model will no longer work. I think at its core, the education system is a top-down model. I wanted to tell you a little story about this. In my research, I decided, “Who’s supplying products to the school?” As I researched it, I found we have lobbyists for that. I’m like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” We need that other level of cash. It is not a money problem, like a lot of government issues. It’s not a lack of money, it’s a systemic problem.
There are a lot of people making decisions or signing pieces of paper, getting big checks. I called this company and they’re in DC and they work as a lobbying firm. I got the head guy on the phone because I like to do things like that. I said, “How are you? I’m researching education and how schools decide what products to buy. It looks like you help schools do that.” He goes, “Yes, that’s what we do. We take the information to someone’s office in the education system in Washington and we present the products we have available.” He started telling me it’s expensive because they work for a company that puts together an IV lab for high school, which is a chemistry lab. A chem lab has a lot of equipment. It’s expensive. I said, “How much would it cost to outfit an IV chem lab in a high school?” He says, “It’s under $500,000. I started thinking, “That sounds like a lot of money.” I was thinking about how much you can do with 3D printing with money like that.
You could buy a lot of 3D printers with $500,000.
This is the number the gentleman told me. I can’t say that that’s true. I’ve talked to other teachers that said there’s no way it’s that much money. That’s not the point. The kicker of the story is I didn’t tell the guy what I was working on, so I said, “What do you think about putting 3D printers in the science labs? I was trying to figure out a place I could inject this information there where I would have the power to spread the 3D printers out into the school system.” His answer was, “What’s that?”
With all the press that 3D printing is getting, this guy has not heard of it?
That story is a great story because it gave me the passion that I have to drive forward. We were talking how we are going to do it. I think we’re going to have to bypass the system. One aspect a lot of people don’t think about is the importance of parents. It may even be something that needs to happen at home. The parents are going to have to play an active role in their children’s education because things are moving quickly that there’s no way the system where it is, is going to be able to keep up of educating our children for what they’re going to need to know in the world they’re stepping into.
That is such a good point. We found a loophole in our school district systems. While we can’t come in as professionals and teach anything, but as parents, we can come in as volunteers so you can get in through the system.
It’s not going to be that you’re teaching a whole class, but certainly, we can get involved as much as they let us.
Give demonstrations and make sure kids get excited about 3D printing. What can it do? Make sure they hear about it. At least we can do that part within the school district and then we can take care of our own daughter. The interesting thing about what you’re saying about bypassing the system is that there’s also though a problem for those coming right out of college. That is where we have a perspective because it’s the same problem we had. When we graduated from RISD there weren’t any CAD classes. There was a CAD lab and you could use it.
You’re on your own. Nobody is teaching it. It was one seat of alias at the time.
It’s probably $100,000.
It was donated equipment and software. Those of us that had an interest used it as much as we could, but we didn’t have a whole lot of time. We had a full course load.
We had to come out of college, teach ourselves the programs and teach ourselves what to do with that. Because we needed to be valuable for what was happening right then and there in the industry and it worked.
It was valuable. We taught ourselves CAD and I was not only doing renderings of product designs but animations in the early mid-‘90s that were blowing people away and getting me jobs because of the technology. I had to teach myself. I do think CAD software certainly is being taught, especially in a lot of design and engineering programs. 3D printing is slow to be adopted and it’s happening in the same way. Tracy was saying where someone will donate a printer and you can use it if you want to. If you take the initiative and you investigate how to do it, but it’s not an intentional part of the curriculum.
What do you think about the difference between having put 3D printers in an education system into a science classroom or a math classroom versus putting it into an art classroom, which I know doesn’t always exist in a lot of schools?
Don’t get me started on the STEM or STEAM issue. I have a degree in Art, so I love art. The one thing that I see about just focusing on STEM education is that I feel like when you’re in school as a child, you need to have a broad knowledge base in order to be successful in the projects that you do. You’ve got to have as much information from as many different areas as possible. I think STEM taking art out of it, which I’ve had conversations with people about this that were in power. I had to keep drilling because I wanted to know why do you not want to call it STEAM? Why do you want to take the art out of this?
The answers I got back were that art is something people do by themselves, which I don’t think is true. I think art and design is a language one learns like any other craft of sewing, playing golf or anything like that. One of the best things we can also share with our children is to create groups where they research and everybody has a predisposed way they deal with the world. The Montessori story got it because every individual comes with the certain things that they’re talented. Naturally, they have different predispositions. Some people will love biology, some people will love math, some people will love athletics.
People having the skill to bring all those people together in a table to solve a problem ends up creating a situation where we can be much better at solving problems that help a broader range of the population. There is a superintendent outside Pittsburgh that’s doing an incredible job with this. He has a classroom and the class itself combines art, science and all kinds of other things. The classroom is structured in such a way I’ve never seen a classroom. The kids come in and the class is a blended class, electronics, that’s science, doing 3D printing. The thing that the group put this together is to let’s say they give the kids an assignment. They had to work in a group together.
One thing that he did inside, this is a big open space with all kinds of tools in it. In one corner of the space is research. If they run into a problem, they go to the computers to find the answer. They don’t come to the teacher and ask them. The whole system is closed where they have to find the answer and work together through these problems. Anybody that fights for STEM against STEAM, I think is shortsighted. The main reason I feel that way is that the idea of the technology behind all this, as we move forward in the development of AI and computing power is going to continue to grow at an exponential rate. A lot of these engineering types of things that are needed will be handled by machines. What happens at that point is the people that understand design and know how to communicate in relationship to people that have different points of view in a team to create a solution will be the most valued people that any company will want to have.
We think it’s a design economy. If we don’t empower our kids to have that design thinking in their head, then they aren’t going to be able to participate in that design economy.
The same thing said a little bit differently by another industry colleague who we’ve known for a number of years. He had sold his company to the largest Chinese trading company in the world. His company was a US company that would design and develop, have things made in China, import them to the US. His company got bought by this trading company. He went to a huge corporate meeting of all of the different companies that this trading company owns, which is many companies providing products to big-box retail stores that we all shop in. They had this marketing research firm come in and tell them about the future of the economy in the next 10 to 15 years and what’s going to happen there. They said, “3D printing is growing fast, people are going to be able to 3D print their own clothing. They’re going to be able to 3D print many products for their home that all of you, companies that are importing manufactured items from other countries are going to be the dinosaurs and you’re going to have to reinvent yourselves or get out of that business completely.” That’s what the big demand is going to be for companies in the future is designers. Who is going to design all of these things that everybody’s going to be 3D printing 10, 15 years in the future?
Who’s going to teach them?
You can learn to have also an appreciation for it, even if it’s not your thing. The problem is the lack of understanding and respect for art in our daily lives. Art involves math all the time when I’m creating a new design. Not only that, how many of these people in school who are more math and science people are maybe going to start their own company at some point and they’re going to put up a website? If they don’t design that website or have any real appreciation or thought for what the design of that website should be, they’re going to have a pretty boring looking website and no one’s going to want to go and see.
I think it was interesting before when you were mentioning your diatoms. I practice what I call bionomic design, which is similar. It’s an organic process of designing that is based on nature and the fractal nature of it, which is so closely tied to the way you build. The attraction for us, and for me for 3D printing is the idea that now I have a manufacturing process that matches my design process perfectly.
Have you seen Janine Benyus’ information that’s called Biomimicry 3.8? It’s a wonderful work. What she’s trying to do is to have a biologist or somebody that looks at living processes that are genius, that is all around us, but it’s ubiquitous, we can’t see it. If you take a design problem and then apply nature to look at how nature solves the problem. If you think about it, nature solves problems at room temperature most of the time. We’ve come in and we’re digging stuff out of the ground and heating it, blasting at it and creating a product out of it where 3D printing grows something. It grows more like nature.
If you look at the design overall, you see a lot of organic natural-looking shapes because the process inherently goes back to a more natural foundation or base. That’s a huge interest to me. I love that idea because I think once you see how important it is to look towards nature for design answers to problems you have, that that’s such a valuable resource for anyone. I have a nice video that speaks to your point. This gentleman’s name is Assa Ashuach. He is an amazing designer. I have a little short video that you can see on YouTube. You can also see it on my website at http://www.3DPrintingRevolution.com/. What he finds interesting is when the object is on the computer because he feels like that’s where the interesting things happen. He talks about leaving it, the design on the computer as long as possible. Doing your iterations there because what 3D printing makes available is that we’re going to be able to make a better product. Also, 3D printing opens the door for mass customization. A lot of it is built for you.
That’s our thing too.
He talks about how it’s not about manufacturing. Maybe you would have less stuff. We all have much stuff. I looked around, my wife and I, we went through a bunch of stuff for spraying and cleaning. It’s amazing the stuff I have around my house that I don’t use. He was talking about an idea where maybe we lived with fewer things, but the things that we did have had more value to us, which I thought was an interesting look at this particular topic.
Because it’s more personal, it has more value. That’s exactly it. That’s one of our other criteria is that at the end of the day, if you can make it personal by the colors you choose, it helps us because of balance. We make products to sell 100,000 units in Costco or something like that. This is a balance to our everyday design lives.
It’s frustrating because everything that sold at mass retail has the number of stores they have out there and the number of products they have to sell in order to get their return on investment for all that overhead they’re paying for. They have to sell tons and tons of them and everything ends up vanilla.
The other problem is that they don’t have any design background, most of them. They’re bringing in products but they don’t have any experience understanding, “Is this even good to begin with?” I was at this event. You had to go around and introduce yourself. I started out saying, “We were industrial designers,” and people looked at me like, “What was that?” I started switching it to say that I was a product designer and I still got that funny look like, “What did I do?”
Did people design that stuff? That’s what it is. We keep getting this pushback against design. I think that’s leading to my next question here is that the design value in the 3D printing world is low, it’s not attracting designers. I don’t want to participate in it. I don’t even want to sell a design because who wants to make zero money because everybody wants it to be free? Who wants to make a buck? I’d have to do 10,000 downloads of a file to make it worth the while and the time and energy we put into it. How is that going to change? Do you see any changes going on there?
You brought up some wonderful points and challenges that we’ll have to face. One thing I wanted to speak to was the idea of Chris Anderson’s book called The Long Tail. As a designer, let’s say you guys made some chairs. You got to make that chair and then that chair had to fit into a parameter. You were to look at a graph where you’d want that chair to be workable for as many people as possible. When you do that, you have to set your design to make that happen. As a designer, you make something that’s going to fit most people, but it’s not going to fit everybody. His idea of the long tail is if you see the graph where you’re going to hit the market the best you can, that’s what you try to do.
It doesn’t always work. Outside of that market is a ten times bigger market of people that want this one something that’s going to fit them better or has a different color or whatever. This idea is what will drive this technology as we move forward selling more customized products into the long tail. There will always be mass-produced products because 3D printing is light years away from competing from injection molding. It’s slow. It will become faster as we move forward. I think that I’m looking at customized products as we move forward, there’s a huge opportunity there. Sometimes it’s hard for our minds, certainly for me to see something as a problem. In Chinese, there’s a word for a problem, but that word also means opportunity. I see a huge open green field of opportunity for designers and entrepreneurs to fill that long tail with the use of a lot of technologies, the democratization of a means of production, of the products that we have.
We couldn’t agree more, Brian. To follow that up, what are some common misconceptions you find when you’re out there talking about 3D printing to people who are new to it or maybe barely heard of it?
People have a lot of misinformation, good and bad. Some people have misinformation to the good. They think it can do way more than it can do.
Tell our audience a little bit about how they can view your film.
I’ve been working on it for several years and it’s been a real journey. What I’ve got is I have many interviews with people that are relative to the market about what they do. The story that surrounds us is still being developed and how that’s going to be. The story that I want to tell is not over yet. It’s going to take a period of time. The piece will encapsulate a moment in the history of a shift of time wherein the way we manufactured things, but then it also shares other stories around the revolution in robotics that’s occurring. The changes that are occurring in our world, which at a fundamental level are driven by the internet and hyperconnectivity. I don’t have a finish date. I guess I should, but there’s much more that I want to do.
Some people have given me a hard time because I’m not done. The thing is I don’t have to answer to anybody. It leaves me free. If I were to take funding from a specific corporation, then what would become the situation is there might be the opportunity for me to have to make a compromise or do something ethically I wouldn’t feel good about. I feel like this story deserves a good, honest, hard look. Everything good and bad about it so people can make a determination on how they want to interface with this technology.
There are a few previews on your YouTube channel that we looked at and they were interesting, well-filmed and beautifully-filmed as well. That way that people can get a little bit of taste of some of the interviews that are on there.
I grew up during the space race. I was ten years old when we landed on the moon. I was at an incredible age to experience that. There was a sense of wonder that I had about that. I believe that 3D printing could be the moonshot for kids. That may sound a little bit over the top, but I truly do believe this. I feel like our children need something to be hopeful about. They need to have the tools they need to help solve some of the grand challenges we’re facing as a species on the planet. They’re ready to do it, but our system is too antiquated to serve them with that. My mission and passion are to help in that way. I’m not here to put anybody down for what they’re doing or saying the system is wrong, because that’s not going to do anything to change anything. I’m here to say, “Here’s another way to look at this and here’s the information that you can take in that might help you discern and make a better decision about how maybe you could make a contribution to the world.”
I’m all for that, especially with two young girls.
I think that was well said, Brian. I don’t think the comparison to the moonshot is over the top. There’s a lot that is analogous between the two. Certainly, you don’t have to leave the earth, so maybe it’s not that difficult. I think that the challenges and the opportunities, there are a lot of similarities.
Also, the mindset and I think that’s what your film is trying to do is change that mindset thinking. It’s yes, we can do this. We appreciate your time. It was interesting. I am jazzed about getting the next generation ready for 3D printing. I’m jazzed about the idea of showing people the possibility of what can be done. That’s why we titled our show What the FFF?! because we want to focus on the what. We talk about this all the time. The what is more important because that’s something people can wrap their minds around and get the concept of when they can visualize what the opportunity is or what their disruptive product is. The how is simple.
I have enjoyed speaking with you guys. I get super excited about this. Anybody reading, reach out to me. I’m open to talking to anybody about whatever they have to say and I’m always looking for new ideas. I’m always looking for people that are having success or failure in education around 3D printing is where I’m drilling down.
There are probably three episodes in what we covered here and touched on. We may have to have him on again.
I was surprised to know a filmmaker who’s looking at the whole history and his mission he set out was to try to capture this moment in history where much is changing maybe more than other times in technological history. What he came to see is what’s holding back 3D printing from growing mainstream. It isn’t the development of technology. It isn’t the fact that inexpensive printers aren’t available. It’s about the education of people that are going to use them and design things to be made on them.
Education including art and the design process, design thinking. I think that’s what’s holding us back as on the whole from doing service to our consumer product, in the consumer product availability, in general. The fact that we don’t have enough design thinking going on in the process. The whole process of making consumer products available is taking out the design every which way you look at it. I think that makes things less enjoyable, less exciting. Where would Apple be if the MacBook, iPhone or iPad wasn’t beautiful, exciting, and it wasn’t designed well with its thought process in its entire thing? People write entire books on that and yet we don’t teach that anywhere in our school system. We have cut it out often.
It’s counterintuitive because Apple is the most profitable company in the whole world because people desire their objects for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the appearance and the tactile quality of the physical products. How are you going to create a product if you don’t have any understanding of it? If you’re not a designer, that’s fine, but you’ve still got to have an understanding and an appreciation for it. Who is going to create all these 3D printed products if this industry is going to go mainstream? It’s such an interesting, in some ways, surprising point in the history of 3D printing, there are no educated certified teachers ready to teach this. Educational institutions are having to play catch up at a bad time when there’s not a whole lot of money being poured into education. If there’s going to be money poured into this, it’s probably going to have to come from private donations because to catch up with China who the government is putting lots of money into 3D printing.
It’s 400,000 3D printers in elementary and middle schools across the country.
I’m a little worried that America is going to be behind the eight ball here. Those that are educated enabled to design products with 3D printing and understand that technology better is probably going to be well employed because it’s going to be a great demand.
I posted that on LinkedIn and there was a lot of controversy about it. If you’re going to put out 400,000 3D printers, you’re going to have to have a system, a technical way to teach that. It’s going to be narrow. The interesting part will be was within that narrowness and that technical teaching, are those Chinese students still going to have, because they’re young and the systematize design thinking hasn’t been thought out of them yet. Are they going to be experimental? Are they going to be trying things? Is this going to open up their minds to the creation in a different way and innovation in a different way than their school system has had before? They could be putting a ton of great new designers out there. Where are we in the US? We haven’t put out any system in place in which that kind of experimentation and successful failure is a part of the education system.
I think the reality is regardless of how successful China is at educating its people in 3D printing, there’s an incredible opportunity here in the United States to educate our own youth, our own people taking full advantage of 3D printing and producing the best possible products for the US market. You can’t understand, design and manufacture products that are perfect for the US consumer without being a US consumer living it and understanding it.
Intimately understanding the culture and understanding women. That’s an important part of that because we see that a lot when we go into China. There are not women designers and engineers. It’s not a part of their process. Somehow I hope that they’re changing that and I hope that this will help change that for them because I think they have a great opportunity. When you have a perspective from that, it changes the way you design a product. I think that that’s the opportunity here in the US, you’re right.
In terms of the education system in the US, the fact that arts had been stripped much from the education system is a terrible situation for the education of it. I have to believe that the American education system as a whole will come around to appreciating it. They are going to be forced to start to include it.
As a parent, I’m not letting that miss my kids. I’m not going to wait for it. That’s where you have to get empowered. I think Brian’s pointing that out a lot, his hope is that the film is going to empower parents, schools and us to make this change faster because it has to happen. Brian Federal’s website is 3DPrintingRevolution.com. There’s a link to his YouTube channel and you can view some of his videos. They’re great. There are a couple of interviews in there. There’s an interview with an industrial designer talking about prosthetics, which is something he’s interested and I think is a great study of how customized 3D printing can be, but how beautiful at the same time. As always you can find us on HazzDesign.com. Our Ask Anything button, don’t forget about that. You can send us a voicemail and ask us a question and we’ll research it, turn it into an episode and let you know.
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Thanks for reading.
- Brian Federal
- Assa Ashuach – YouTube video
- YouTube – Brian Federal’s channel
- The Long Tail
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- iTunes – WTFFF?! 3D Printing Podcast
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