The 3-D printing revolution is not taking off as fast as expected, but changing the target market might help reverse the trend. MassChallenge finalist Makers Empire is hoping to popularize 3-D printing in elementary and middle school classrooms, seeking to emulate the way personal computers warmed up the consumer market by hooking students.
The startup, which was founded in Australia, offers lesson plans and software that allow students to design printable objects. That approach, the company says, allows students to build their own prototypes through trial and error.
Makers Empire finance chief Anthony Chhoy said the company’s software also helps teachers because it can be used without having to spend months learning specialized design skills.
“This way, the technology and the resource do not become an obstacle,” Chhoy said. “You have more time to inspire the students with creativity and imagination and independent thinking. That’s where the educators see great value in our product.”
Since launching in late 2013, Makers Empire has grown its footprint to more than 40 schools worldwide, including customers in Australia, Hong Kong, and South Korea. In the United States, it’s working with printer manufacturer Afinia 3D to reach the the education market. Chhoy declined to reveal how much the company has raised in seed funding.
The New York Institute of Technology and New York Teachers Center are halfway through a yearlong test of Makers Empire, and this fall, Newton Public Schools will become the first US-based paying customer for Makers Empire. Leo Brehm, the school district’s IT chief, hopes the process of designing a 3-D object will teach students how to ask better questions.
“The hope is that our learners will become better problem-solvers,” Brehm said. “When they are ready to tackle larger concepts in more complicated curriculum areas, they can apply this thinking process to those problems.”
3-D printing has been used for years in industrial design and other big-business settings to help designers build fast, cheap prototypes. But in recent years, cheaper technology components and advances in e-commerce sites have allowed entrepreneurs to make more affordable 3-D printers for the hobbyist market.
New York-based MakerBot, founded in 2009, offered one of the first mass-market 3-D printers. The company opened several storefronts, including a location on Newbury Street, and was acquired by large 3-D printing company Stratasys Ltd. in 2013 for about $400 million. But Stratasys found the consumer market too soft and closed several storefronts, shifting its target market towards schools.
Newton North High School’s Innovation Lab has been using 3-D printers for four years, and K-8 schools have had the technology for two years, Brehm said — the district owns MakerBot and Afinia 3-D printers.
In the last 18 months, Newton has tested 3-D printing in the second-grade science curriculum using design software program TinkerCad. But Brehm said he has been searching for software that is easier to use at the elementary level.
“Makers Empire is going to bring a whole new approach,” Brehm said. “It is very intuitive and geared towards a novice mind.”
About eight of Newton’s elementary schools will integrate the Makers Empire software with science, technology, engineering, and math classes, Brehm said. Newton will start the year with five to seven 3-D printers in its elementary schools, with plans to purchase more devices as library teachers become more comfortable with the program, he said.
Sharon Public Schools is also using 3-D printing in its three elementary schools. John Marcus, the district’s technology director, said teachers have built a curriculum around TinkerCad and supplement the Web-based service with Makers Empire and Google Apps on iPads. Sharon uses Makers Empire’s free 3-D design app, which comes with six modules.
“If we can use this technology in the right context, you are changing the student’s world because it is these students who are going to change the world with this technology in the future,” Chhoy said. “We are helping prepare these young students for the jobs of tomorrow.”