Jon Soong is ready for the day when 3D printers are as familiar in schools and society as the personal computer.
While 3D printers have long been used in industry, Soong and his partners at Makers Empire are harnessing the technology as an educational tool.
“3D printing helps children learn the spatial, design and reasoning skills that will be vital for the jobs of tomorrow,” Soong says.
Australia’s national schools curriculum requires technology to be taught from kindergarten to high school. While it doesn’t specifically mandate that students learn 3D printing, it does require them to learn design skills. Soong says 3D printing forms a part of that learning.
“3D printing is poised to have the same impact that computing has had on our lives – we believe skills in 3D technology will be essential in the near future,” says Soong. “Students are not just learning technical skills, they also develop their creativity and problem-solving skills, and ultimately will be better off than their peers when it comes to higher education and career prospects.”
As well as software that enables schoolchildren to easily design and print their own 3D objects, Makers Empire’s learning program includes a portal that trains teachers in how to incorporate 3D printing into the curriculum and manage their students’ work and lessons.
The easy-to-use nature of Makers Empire software means teachers don’t have to spend months learning specialised design skills.
“This way, the technology and the hardware do not become obstacles,” Soong says. “Teachers can spend more time inspiring students to think imaginatively and independently. That’s the great value of our product for educators.”
So far 40,000 students in around 150 schools across Australia, Asia and North America are using the program.
Inroads in the United States
The US had been on Makers Empire’s target list and the opportunity to expand into this market came when they were approached by Professor Stan Silverman from the New York Institute of Technology. He told Soong he’d been looking for a program like Makers Empire’s for a long time and asked the company to present to the Institute’s educational committee.
A state-wide pilot in partnership with the New York State Teacher Centers and the New York Institute of Technology followed, with Makers Empire trialled in schools, museums and teacher centres.
“That trip really opened the door to New York for us,” Soong says. “As a result of the pilot, we signed agreements with two New York regional information centres. Schools can buy products via these centres’ purchasing platform and access state aid for the purchase.” The agreements are a huge opportunity for Makers Empire, with its learning program now accessible to over 1,500 schools across the state. To date, 30 schools have signed up in New York state, with another 10 in other parts of the US.
Makers Empire also participated in Mass Challenge – a four-month business accelerator program based in Boston. Mass Challenge is one of the biggest tech accelerators in the world, having helped launch over 600 startups. “It was great for us, we had an instant homebase in the US and a network of people that we could ask questions,” says Soong.
A 3D view of education
Soong studied programming at the University of Adelaide, where he met Makers Empire co-founder Roland Peddie, who was studying engineering.
Peddie went on to work in Scotland building video games, winning a BAFTA for his work on Xbox 360 bestseller Crackdown. This experience provided the initial idea for Makers Empire. Peddie had noticed that some video game players spent more time customising their characters and their equipment than they did playing the actual game, and thought maybe there was something to that.
Later when he returned to Australia, he wrote some software to allow his daughter, then aged four, to ‘build’ things on her iPad, recognising that a child’s curiosity and learning is sparked by designing and building things.
The advent of 3D printing was the final piece in the puzzle – enabling children to print what they’d designed.
Peddie and Soong launched Makers Empire based on this concept at the start of 2014.
The company really got underway when the founders took their business idea through the 14-week ANZ Innovyz START accelerator, which Soong says was really important because “we learnt the basics of a startup business, what investors are looking for and how fast-growth companies have achieved their success.”
In late 2014, Makers Empire formed a partnership with DTSL, one of Hong Kong’s premier 3D printing solution providers. Through this partnership, Makers Empire can provide consumers and schools in Hong Kong with its learning program and DTSL’s 3D printer solutions. The partnership opened up the Hong Kong market for the company, with 12 schools using the program to date.
The founders are now in talks with potential distribution partners in China and are exploring opportunities in the Middle East.The program is currently being tested in five schools in Korea and Maker’s Empire has an agreement with a distributor in Malaysia, where a number of schools are using the software.
The founders spend a lot of time in schools, watching how the children use their products, which Soong says is a highlight of his job.
“It’s always good to see how kids use what you’re making, although often it’s not how you thought they’d do it,” he says, explaining how he saw one student use letters of the alphabet she’d printed to make a chain for a name tag.
“I love the opportunity to make something which has a positive impact. We want to reach as many students as we can – not just in Australia but around the world,” says Soong.