The new GCSE syllabus is very different from the one we previously taught, unless, of course, you taught it much like the new syllabus anyway. But one new stipulation is the need for an iterative design process. Now this is something I covered in a previous blog, and it has always been an aspect of good design, but today I want to talk about the importance of rapid prototyping (or RP if you like your acronyms) to successfully meet this element of the non-exam assessment (NEA).
3D printing is something that could be considered a bit of a fad since its introduction. I know of many teachers and centres that are making huge advances with the technology but for every one of these there are several more turning out impossible puzzles, gears and other readily available injection-moulded components and a multitude of random objects grabbed from the internet; all of which are perfectly acceptable routes for demonstrating the technology but are they really exploring what 3D printing can do? I have already written about the way that 3D printing can challenge our approaches to internal structures and component construction but it’s now a technology that can help you to realise your ideas much more quickly than traditional model-making methods. With several iterations needed to satisfy the requirements of the NEA, you are going to have to use your time very wisely...and a machine running a prototype or component off while you do something more productive than watching it will be a much better use of your limited time.
It’s not just 3D printing that could well be the solution to the NEA. Just about any CNC equipment (especially that which is normally operated by a technician) could prove invaluable in allowing students to realise several iterations in the often-limited time available. Consider how long it might take you to produce a hand-made prototype in the workshop. Maybe four or five hours? That is quite a chunk of your time gone, and bear in mind that you may well be making several prototype outcomes as part of this iterative process.
Now consider the benefits of CAD technology. Not only can you produce several virtual iterations of a design without ever losing the original, you can also output those models to CNC equipment. You will rarely be expected to watch these parts being outputted, so that is "gained time" in which you can do something more productive like working on the next iteration or putting your portfolio of work together. Using this approach, you could end up with a nice range of CAD models to support your design ideas but also several prototype iterations to test and evaluate. Not bad at all for the time spent.
This is just one aspect of rapid prototyping that could benefit your department and your NEA students, but consider the use of this technology further down the school and into the earlier key stages. The technology is becoming increasingly accessible, with even local supermarkets stocking 3D printers. Prices are dropping while availability is on the increase. Couple this with increased reliability and ease of use and even the most technologically challenged can see an object materialise before their eyes in no time at all. If I seem enthusiastic, it is because I am. I recently undertook my own NEA to see how difficult it might be and I struggled to make several prototypes to a high quality in the time limit I set myself. At the time, I had no access to a 3D printer but once I received one I could convert a prototype object made mostly from wood and plastic components into one that was completely 3D printed in a matter of hours, and that simply snapped together with ease. Furthermore, I could adapt the original CAD model to make several iterations in a fraction of the time it took to make the wooden iterations, and I was able to get on with my day and collect these parts (courtesy of a fantastic technician) on my way home, assemble them over a coffee at home and evaluate in the evening with the "client".
With the need for a client to be involved in the design process and several iterations of the design to be produced, having a 3D printer from the start would have changed my approach to the design process and no doubt saved me many hours in the workshop. 3D printers remain a tool for realising ideas and a very impressive one at that. We will always need to visit the workshop to experiment with other tools and materials – and I wouldn’t have it any other way – but if you are yet to invest in 3D printing and have the means to do so, it could be a very rewarding investment for you and your students.
Paul has taught and led design and technology in a variety of schools, as well as working as a musician, artist, freelance designer, examiner, moderator, resource author and D&T consultant. He is currently the head of creative arts at a large independent school in the North of England