Will hooking children on 3-D printing help drive adoption of the technology? Makers Empire is betting it will.
The startup, founded in Australia, offers lesson plans and software that allow students to design printable objects. That, the company says, allows students to build their own prototypes through trial and error.
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.”
Makers Empire, launched in 2013, is a finalist in MassChallenge, a nonprofit startup incubator. It has more than 40 schools as customers, including in Australia, Hong Kong, and South Korea. In the United States, it’s working with the printer manufacturer Afinia 3D to reach the education market. Chhoy would not say how much it 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’s public school system will become its first US-based paying customer. Leo Brehm, the school district’s IT chief, said he hopes that designing 3-D objects will teach students to ask better questions.
“The hope is that our learners will become better problem-solvers,” he said.
3-D printing has been used for years in industrial design 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 consumer market.
New York-based MakerBot, founded in 2009, offered one of the first mass-market 3-D printers. It was acquired by a large 3-D printing company, Stratasys Ltd., in 2013 for about $400 million. But Stratasys found the consumer market too soft and shifted its marketing to 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 software called TinkerCad. But Brehm said he has been searching for software that is easier to use at the elementary school level.
“Makers Empire is going to bring a whole new approach,” he said. “It is very intuitive and geared toward a novice mind.”
Sharon is also using 3-D printing, in its three elementary schools. John Marcus, technology director, said teachers 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.
“If we can use this technology in the right context, you are changing the student’s world,” Chhoy said.