Around the world, and particularly in Chicago, various individuals and groups are getting involved in the ‘Maker Movement’, seeing 3D printers, laser etchers, and other digital fabrication machines as a technological revolution in the making. To be part of this, corporations, universities, and various Chicago institutions have been setting up stores, fab labs, and hackspaces where people can not only utilize tools like 3D printers, but also learn the skills sets required to use them.
With all new things, though, there’s a learning curve. Tech gurus all over predict that there’ll be a 3D printer in every future home. But how will schools teach people to operate 3D printers? And what pieces of 3D ‘Computer Assisted Design’ software will people learn to use at various points in their education from childhood to adulthood?
We can’t know for certain. But we can predict what such future education might be like by looking at the current forms of 3D CAD (Computer Assisted Design) software freely available on the internet, and postulating how individuals at different levels of aptitude might make use of some of them.
Let’s take a look then, at some of the more popular 3D modeling software programs online, and try to predict the schooling levels at which these certain programs might be used:
In grade schools in the 1980s and 1990s, kids learned the logic behind computer programming through Turtle. Similarly, a kid in a future grade school may learn how to manipulate 3D shapes on a computer by using Tinkercad.
Tinkercad’s basic format is designed to be easy to grasp: you click and drag a set of pre-made polygonal shapes onto a platform from a toolbar to the right. You adjust their sizes to your liking, and then merge them into the shape you want. The controls for manipulating these graphics are clear and unambiguous, leaving you with no confusion as to whether you’re lifting an object up into the air or moving it backward. Tinkercad (which can be downloaded or used via web browser window), even has a set of lengthy tutorials that walk you through how to move, resize, and combine objects.
Still, while using Tinkercad, you pick up and internalize the logic of manipulating 3D models in a 3D space using a 2D interface. With a bit of creativity, you can make some very interesting objects. A grade schooler using Tinkercad would pick up some valuable skills and be able to print out beginner objects on a 3D printer before moving on to a more advanced program:
2: 123d Design
The older, more mature sibling to Tinkercad, 123d Design can be downloaded or used in a browser (you need a plugin for the later option). A middle school student upgrading to 123d Design will be on familiar ground. Like with Tinkercad, you click and drag basic polygonal shapes from a right-hand side bar onto a platform, and move said shapes around using the same kinds of controls.
Our middle-schooler will soon discover more to play with in 123d Design. There are design tools that allow shapes to be trimmed, stretched, and modified: you can add holes, round edges, and even create new sides and corners. The camera controls are more sensitive, allowing for quick movement and specialized perspective options. There are even specialized pre-made shapes people can use for specific projects, ranging from robot parts to bicycle components.
You do still have to start from pre-determined ‘building blocks’, basic 3D shapes that are sculpted into what you want, as opposed to built from scratch. As the enterprising middle-schooler transitions to a high school, he’ll turn to CAD programs with quicker design formats, programs such as…
3: Sketchup Make
A sophisticated, yet mature 3D CAD program, people can use Sketchup Make to design complex 3D objects from the ground up
In Sketchup Make, you construct 3D objects by first drawing a 2D plane, then using a ‘Pull’ function to inflate it into a full-blown 3D shape. By modifying the initial shape of the object with several options, including a line drawing tool, you can create a 3D part with holes, extrusions, and extra angles right off the bat, rather the sculpt a pre-existing shape into what you want.
Sketchup Make has little in the way of tutorials, and isn’t as clear in function as programs like Tinkercad. To learn to use Sketchup, you have to be willing to experiment with certain tools: be ready to make some blunders, and when you accidentally create a piece of distorted geometry straight out of an eldritch nightmare, take it in in stride.
But as with the software he’s used before, a high student learning Sketchup will quickly grasp a consistent internal logic behind it’s user interface. Compared to programs like Tinkercad and 123d design, Sketchup can make nearly anything from scratch, supplying our hypothetical high school student with a no-frills platform on which his creativity can run wild.
A high school graduate schooled in Tinkercad, 123d Design, and Sketchup Make will be comfortable around both 3d printers and most 3d design software. He or she will be able to design basic objects to suit his everyday needs.
And if this high school student wants to acquire professional 3d modeling skills in college, he or she can work with professional programs like…
Blender is a 3D CAD program for hardcore designers. It’s used by rocket scientists to calculate the volume of spaceships, game/product designers to make objects for video games, and graphics artists to make art.
It is not designed to be accessible to the layperson. If anything, it’s user interface is like a fisherman’s tackle-box: every nook and cranny is filled with a menu of icons and design options for every conceivable situation and need.
There are functions for changing an objects position and orientation with the finest details, and several tools for changing the lighting and the angle of the camera. There are options for animating 3D shapes in the process of motion (for making 3D films and video games), and various tools that allow a 3D shape to be reworked and warped in a series of near infinite permutations.
The learning curve is steep. But as a college student studies and works hard to master programs like Blender, he/she’ll learn to design schematics for printable 3D objects that are works of art as well as practical goods.