3D Printing Expo Shows an Industry Focused on Innovation

NEWS ANALYSIS: 3D printing offers significant business benefits, say its enthusiasts, but also the potential to create a generation of deeper thinkers.

NEW YORK—The Inside 3D Printing Conference and Expo at the Javits Center here from April 2 to 4 offered a reminder that 3D printing is intended to change the world.

On display were 3D printers for every type of user, budget and intention. Printed items ranged from a bicycle to a drum kit, a small city made of sandstone, a dragon, the heels of shoes (athletic to 4-inch heels), jewelry, countless trinkets (bunnies, robots, a 5-inch replica of Brazil's "Cristo Redentor") and a super-hero suit.

Try as I did, I couldn't find a baker or confectionist offering printed edibles, though I was happy to receive a small, light clip designed to keep my earbuds from tangling in my purse. It uses a tiny safety pin as a hinge and does the job perfectly.

The clip was created by Steve Kurti, the chief executive maker at Table Top Inventing, who during his session, "Educating Makers: The First Step to Revolutionary Change," highlighted what's arguably the most exciting and world-changing thing about 3D printing: It can change the way the next generation learns, thinks and approaches the world.

Kurti opened his talk with a question: What do 3D printing, the Mars Rover and vegan strawberry shortcake have in common?

Answer: None of these things sprang from someone's mind fully formed. They involved multistep processes that people needed to think through.

"Creamy icing without dairy products? You need to think that through," said Kurti. "It takes experimentation."

And in nearly every instance, the first version is never a winner. The earbuds clip he gave out? "Version seven."

Kurti gives talks to educators—the most effective way to reach lots of teenagers—about the need for young people to ask deeper questions.

Surface questions lead to deeper questions, which lead to core issues and then the central issue, "that thing at the center that if you take care of it, the problem goes away," said Kurti.

Isaac Newton asked a question (Why did the apple fall from the tree?); later, Albert Einstein asked a deeper question (What is it that makes two things with mass attract?) that got closer to the core issue.

"We believe you can inspire deeper questions through the maker process," said Kurti. "Maker education is a hands-on philosophy of learning, in which physically building solutions leads to deeper thinking."

Gabrielle Rangel, associate CTO of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said during his session, "Inspiring the Next Generation of Space Explorers by Using Augmented Reality, 3D Printing and 3D Scanning," that the "next generation of space explorers are kids that grew up playing video games. We're demonstrating how today's toys can become tomorrow's tools."