3D Printing: Sketch to SketchUp, 30 minutes

This evening, I bumped into a guy I know, who talked to me about a project he’s working on. Turns out that he could use a template for this project. Basically, he needs a jig.  A jig is a three-dimensional object that serves as a template:  Slide the unaltered main part into the jig, use the guides on the jig to attach the relevant bits in exactly the right place, slide the newly altered part out of the jig, and boom! Done!

But describing the jig — a template for a part that requires repeated steps to assemble in exactly the same way every time — this bit of tape here, that cut there, and so on.  It’s a very difficult task.  He was trying to describe it in words, and not doing very well.

So, I whipped out my iPad, and started up Paper by fiftythree.com, and in a few minutes we’d worked up a passable sketch.  I left him, and walked home, and used the remaining thirty-five minutes of battery power to design the jig for his project.  A short while later, I’ve gotten an e-mail back from him, and he’s seen the .JPGs of his rough idea, rendered in SketchUp, and approved the design.

I’ll try doing a rough printout for him tomorrow on our cupcake printer, Moira.  And he’ll be able to try out his design, and talk to his project partners, on Friday or Monday.

Think about the power of that for the future of manufacturing:  A rough design of a part, from sketch to SketchUp or other 3D Modeling software, in 35 minutes. Another hour or two to print the design — twenty minutes of that time spent calibrating the Frankenstein’s Monster of a cupcake printer (Love you, “Moira!”) and warming her up to 220° C for printing, instead of waiting six to twenty days for the part to be designed, mis-manufactured, shipped, corrected, shipped back, re-manufactured, and then be useful.  Wow.

And now, add in the potential that your kid in third grade is doing that work.

A kid in third grade doesn’t even know what the X-Y-Z axis means, let alone how to measure precisely along those axes.  He doesn’t know what a cam or a jig or a template or a gauge is, or how to put calibration markers into his design, so he can compare the first print with the model, and determine how much of a margin of error is created between the digital model and the final product.

But he could.  And he will, with enough practice.

In the meantime, there are going to be two prints of this object — one for my friend, and one to show the new teachers who are coming to my school to attend a class on how to teach Design Thinking.

Because, as Scott says, “A picture is worth a thousand words. But a part is worth a thousand pictures.”  And so it proved.  I took my friend’s words, about a thousand of them, and I structured them into a rough sketch, and then into a SketchUp model.  And tomorrow, I’m going to take two hours of time I could be writing, to dedicate my computer to the task of printing two copies of this model, to make a part.

A hundred thousand words — a hundred thousand x-y-z axis calibrations and a semi-precise amount of melted plastic later — and my friend will have his part.

It’s hard to believe I’ve done the equivalent amount of thinking, as if I’d just written a third of a Stephen King novel, but I have.  We should do a better job of teaching kids that drawing is thinking.  We should do better than that, really: We teachers should believe it ourselves.

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