It was Bill Thompson who said it. We had just finished lunch at the Fitzwilliam Museum, when Bill set his cup of tea down in its saucer and said 'Wouldn't it be great if we could give a 3D printed copy of a museum object to every child in the country'.
Somebody made a wisecrack about sounding like a fantastic opportunity for disposal, and the conversation carried on to other things.
But the idea stayed with me. And the more I think about it, the more I think 'why not?'. It's like an itch I can't seem to scratch, so I am sharing it here in the hope that someone will either tell me why it won't work, or we'll start a movement!
So - imagine this. We take full 3D scans of, say 10 iconic objects from UK museums. 10 of the most recognisable things, which will still be recognisable when printed out in mono-colour plastic powder. Then we print out hundreds of thousands of them and ship them to every school in the country.
Then, on a particular day, or in a particular week, every school-age child - say every child between 6 and 18 - is given one of the 10 'objects' to have. They can throw them away, swap them, take them home, learn more about them. It really doesn't matter very much what they do with them. The point is clear, and simple, and I think it could be incredibly powerful - 'here it is, it's your culture. We've got a lot more where this came from'.
One Object Per Child.
It's the kind of thing the BBC used to do - big, national gestures like the BBC Micro which arguably changed the course of a generation, enabling the UK to be a global player in the digital revolution. Heritage is real, tangible, and interesting. Imagine the legions of kids taking their objects home, talking to their parents, siblings, grandparents about them, putting them on a shelf, organising them into a collection. Putting a little bit of heritage in every child's life as a quiet way of asserting their ownership of our shared history. At the same time, it opens their eyes to the tremendous power of 3D printing. For those lucky few schools with access to a Fab Lab, the 3D scans could be made available for them to print out themselves, weaving the objects into lesson plans and the syllabus.
The Child Trust Fund was a Government plan to get people saving for their children's future. Do something now, the idea ran, and your kids will get a better start with adulthood. Why not do something now to invest in your child's cultural future?
Can it be done? Well technically, yes. The technology exists for the scans, 3D printers are now widely available and tremendously capable. The cost of production hasn't yet come down quite far enough, but is likely to in the next year or so. Shipping and logistics are all challenges, but by no means insurmountable. Public statistics say that there are 4.4m children in primary education, and 3.6m in secondary education. Bearing in mind that some primary children would arguably be too young to know why they were being given a plastic artefact (say, Nursery and Reception), this gives us a rough total of 6.9m children - let's call it an even 7m.
7m children, 7m objects. One object per child.
So why do the 3D printing thing? There are factories around the world that could crank out 7m injection-moulded objects in no time, so why not use them? Well, a couple of reasons - firstly because for millions of children, it would most likely be the first 3D-printed object they'd ever hold. It would open their eyes to the power and potential of bespoke mass-prodcution. What better way to inspire a generation of entrepreneurs to think about the possibilities of the 3D revolution?
Secondly, 3D printing at scale is an incredibly efficient manufacturing methodology - because you only pay for the material you use. Traditional manufacturing involves wastage, cutoffs, lots of material that doesn't end up in the thing. What better way could there be to prove the point about the cost-effectiveness of 3D printing than to deliver a national project at scale with less wastage and environmental impact than the mass-production of Happy Meal toys?
So - money. How much would it cost to scan, print and ship 7m objects? As usual, it's one of those 'it depends' answers - how complex, how colourful, how big? What is clear is that at mass-production scales for small objects there are very significant economies of scale to be had. Lets say it costs 75p per object. That's £5.25m. Then there's the scanning of 10 objects - maybe £50k. Then communicaions, shipping etc. Let's go mad - let's say £6m.
I can hear the Daily Mail from here.
But let's think about that figure for a minute. Or rather, let's think about Kickstarter and Ouya. Ouya is an open-source videogame console platform. When it launched on Kickstarter, it was after USD950k. It made more than this. Much more. In the end, 63,000 people contributed to the campaign, which raised a total of $8.6m. Ouya is currently sorting out a distribution deal with a view to hitting consumer electronic stores any day now.
Let's think about all the big companies that are betting on 3D printing to transform mass-production, and need ways of getting the technology into the hindbrain of the general public. Suddenly, £6m doesn't sound like so much after all. And then it hits you - why just the UK? Why not reach out to millions of schoolchildren all over the world - tell them to claim the heritage that's theirs by right? If we can do it here, we could do it anywhere!
So that's it - that's the idea which Bill Thompson sparked over a cup of tea in a museum. 7m children. 7m objects. One object per child. Why not?
Answers on a postcard, please!