06 January 2013

Are we making a new age of engineers?

There simply are not enough engineers riding through America's education system anymore. This country embodied greatness thanks to people who made things. Individuals who had a vision of something fantastic and refused to hear it could not be achieved. You could argue that our founding fathers started this engineering nonsense when they crafted our country and built freedom for every citizen. They engineered something that few had only dreamed of. Unfortunately, it is getting difficult to find a Benjamin Franklin, A.G. Bell or Steve Jobs in our land of the free.

I hate to say it but Americans have become a country of consumers. In ages past, our kids would try to make mechanical cars with tin cans and parts nicked from the junk yard. Now our kids are focused on earning money so they can go buy it from Toys R Us. In the past we might have sat around with our sibling and invented a new game with bottle caps and socks with holes in them, or perhaps we might have even programmed it on a Commodore 64 with a tape drive. Today they just spend a buck on iTunes to play Angry Birds. We have given up our computers with a built in programming language for a Kindle Fire so we can watch Netflix.

Obviously, there are exceptions. Just not enough of them. The end result is a class of America that wants to be bankers, business leaders or attorneys and not enough of them that want to build something new. But I think that will change. A new age of American engineers is just around the corner.

Our kids will soon be saving their allowance and working extra nanny nights so they can save up to buy a 3D printer. These little beauties will allow you to create .. Well. Just about anything, really. Need a new case for your smart phone? Print it. Want to replace a piece for your toy? Print it. Want to design your own board game with detailed war ships and alien flying saucers? You can design and print it.

These printers are still in their infancy, but the price is starting to reach the point where they are invading homes. My friends, Ryan and Colin, introduced me to a rental MakerBot joint on Capital Hill in Seattle where you can print nearly any object you want and avoid having to spend the hundreds for a printer. But make no mistake about it - in five years from now you will have friends who are sporting one of these devices in their home. Kids in elementary schools everywhere will be learning how to design objects to make their own creations.

The 3D printer is not merely a tool for making objects any more than a Commodore 64 is simply a computer to program your own Jumpman. These buggers may be the ultimate gateway drug to opening our minds to engineering possibilities. Once you start being able to quickly and easily design and create your own objects you start thinking of how to make all the pieces connect. Next you are creating more complicated pieces, more moving parts, more connections. Maybe they start designing a new type of communication tool, or perhaps they connect it to an Aruino, or perhaps they add a model rocket engine to it. Nearly whatever they think of they can print.

Some doubt this revolution is coming. They think this is just journalists stunned by the next cool piece of technology. They are probably right. For most of us. Still, I cannot help think that in the hands of the youngest members of our country that they will create a new world.

These creation boxes could give every kid in our country the opportunity to imagine something amazing. Once you make power like that available to the masses then it is tough for me to imagine having an engineering problem.

We might have a shortage of attorneys, though.