Hacking a path forward with 3D printing classes

A 3D printing start-up wants to “educate and inspire” manufacturers and potential Makers. Brent Balinski spoke to Protoworks’ founder Hans Chang about 3D printing in businesses and schools.

Unmet demand

It’s regularly been said lately that Australia’s manufacturing sector is in a time of transition, and that there’s a need for companies to be “advanced” in order to be competitive.

Hans Chang, who returned home this year after four years in Silicon Valley, agrees with the assessment. He also sees parallels with the USA’s sector after the GFC.

“I believe that many manufacturers are in the process of trying to transition to more high-value, low-volume manufacturing,” Chang told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“So 3D printing is part of advanced manufacturing. And I think both the industry and research institutions recognise this, and my hypothesis is that many people in manufacturing don’t necessarily know how to get started because there’s really no accessible training that’s available in the marketplace.”

The GFC era saw the US’s automotive sector comprehensively belted, and two of its giants – GM and Chrysler – need government bailing out. Of course, the auto industry in Australia (passenger car assembly is scheduled to disappear altogether in two years) and how well what’s left of it adapts remains a major issue here.

Chang believes that for suppliers and others wanting to stay relevant, additive manufacturing is a key enabling technology, and if they haven't adopted it then now is the time. Many would agree.

However, he also believes there’s an absence of entry-level education available for SMEs looking to take that first step into 3D printing.

“There’s specialist training but it’s often quite expensive, so I’m trying to offer accessible and affordable training for people who don’t know anything about 3D printing,” said Chang, whose start-up Protoworks will hold its first “3D Printing Boot camp” in February.

Spreading the word

“The timing I think is good. There are a lot of discussions around helping the automotive manufacturing sector to do something to become more nimble and more agile.”

The classes are geared towards the curious-but-clueless, with participants required to only bring a laptop with Cura (a free 3D software program) installed. 

Despite some impressive public investments in technology around Melbourne, anecdotally, the take-up of 3D printing within industry is slower than elsewhere in the Asia Pacific region.

One of the 20,000 or so “Aussie Mafia” expats living in Silicon Valley, Chang worked for flash memory device designer, developer and manufacturer SanDisk until returning to Melbourne in August and starting Protoworks.

Working in new product introduction for four years, he helped bring in 3D printing for proof of concept work on a removable USB stick at the multibillion-dollar SanDisk. This came about during an internal “hackathon”.

Chang’s interest in hacking and Making (a massive subculture in the Bay Area especially, centred around DIY projects ranging from woodworking to science experiments) then drew him to San Jose’s Tech Shop (one of many well-equipped fabrication studios in the TS network) and then to a partnership with NextFab.

He then received certification throughNextFab, a hybrid engineering contractor, consultancy and educational organisation in Philadelphia. NextFab has been contracted by the US Department of Labor to provide 3D printing training. Chang believes the situation there, again, has relevance to the Australian context, and he plans to run the American company’s curriculum here.  

Can they hack it?

“Through NextFab, through the experience they’ve had with manufacturers in the US, it is quite common and Australia is going through a similar type of transitioning or restructuring of the industry,” said Chang.

“I think similar things can be learned from the US and they apply directly here and need to be tailored a little bit towards the needs of the audience, in particular for the automotive industry.”

Another concept he is keen to adopt here is the use of Maker ideas in education, and wants to introduce his boot camps to schools.

He sees the need for Maker-inspired programmes to be introduced as a way to foster an interest in STEM skills. The idea seems to be one gaining traction – for example with the SA government announcing this week that they’d run a pilot program for 3D printers in 28 public schools in 2016.

Getting students’ hands dirty – or at least manipulating CAD programs and Ultimaker machines – will point them in the right direction, believes Chang. If you get stuck during an activity that captivates you, you’ll identify what’s blocking you so you can keep going ahead.

“So if you program in general you’re going to learn programming skills, and to learn programming skills you probably have to understand mathematics, computational mathematics. Otherwise it doesn’t work,” he explained, calling it a pull rather than a push version of learning.

“If you want to understand how 3D printing works, you have to understand not only the mathematics, the coordinates system, you have to also understand the physics. Why does the extruder work in certain ways? Because of gravity pushing the molten plastic downwards towards earth.

“And you have to learn about chemistry. Why certain plastics melt at certain temperatures? The difference between PLA and ABS. So you are teaching design, too.”

Protoworks’ 3D Printing Boot Camp – From Design To Print will be held at Melbourne’s Collective Campus this February. (Exact date TBC at the time of writing.)

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