Additive manufacturing is Nature’s way

Standard

3D printing is one of the latest technology trends to enthuse the public and excite the journalist. Universities are using them for research tools, manufacturers for rapid prototyping, and schools are starting to buy them for their design and technology classrooms. Indeed, earlier this year, Festival-alumnus Luke Johnson called for help in an FT article to place one in every UK school, rather than just the privileged few that could afford the investment.

And 3D printing is certainly worthy of attention. For once we are starting to consider building complex structures in an additive way; brick-by-brick on a much smaller scale. This is second nature to those brought up on Lego, and this is also second nature to Nature herself. We as humans grow by the slow but accurate deployment of new cells, seashells extend by the gradual deposition of mainly calcium carbonate, and striking geological formations build up by sedimentation of rock and debris.

So we have been witness to additive manufacturing since the day we were born, yet we tend to manufacture most artificial things using subtractive techniques on moulded or extruded billets. This is a little wasteful of material, and not particularly elegant. Imagine if trees began life as solid 100-foot-tall blocks of wood and gradually eroded to reveal their structure with a large pile of waste shavings at their foot?

As we get to grips with 3D printing, one of the key milestones will be our ability to manipulate materials during the process to create continuously changing compositions. Look carefully at that tree again, and you will see that the deposited cells create a structure that transcends through root, wood, bark, softer wood, leaf, and fruit. And these themselves have complexities visible only on the micro-scale.

So our ability to slowly 3D print a lump of plastic, albeit in a complex shape, is not really enough to congratulate ourselves about. When we can control the self-assembly of a series of structures that seamlessly change from metal to polymer to ceramic so as to provide functional mechanical and electrical properties in just the right places, we are getting there. The test, for example, might be to 3D print the electric lightbulb. Any bright ideas?

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

Advertisements

Should there be another E in STEM?

Standard

Promoting Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (the STEM subjects) to school-aged children is an incredibly important activity if the goal is to generate a more creative and innovative future. Of course the arts are creative and innovative in their own right, but wealth generation that fuels an economy (and in many ways funds art so that it can be enjoyed) is likely to come about through the application of STEM.

And that is where the other E comes in. STEM subjects on their own cannot lead to revenue. It is business acumen that turns a technical invention or scientific discovery into a viable commercial product or service. This relies on a firm understanding of Enterprise, or indeed that of being an Entrepreneur.

With this in mind, I think we are doing students a disservice if we encourage them to think STEM, but don’t teach them about how to commercialise results. Not everyone wants to be a businessman or businesswoman (the Entrepreneur), but appreciating what’s involved and understanding routes to market (Enterprise) that others may follow will help them focus on the overall importance of STEM.

At a recent panel session on the subject of STEM skills held in Birmingham as part of the Festival of Science, the point was made that the term ‘knowledge economy’ is an outdated concept. What is needed instead is ‘clever makers or clever builders’. In other words it is not good enough to just think good ideas, but you have to implement them into something tangible, usable and hence valuable. I would add ‘clever exploiters’.  I don’t mean exploit in terms of abuse, I mean exploit in terms of capitalise. Yes, I know, another E.

Young Enterprise is an example of a school-based initiative that promotes business thinking in students. But my experience is that YE activities are largely done in isolation of the parallel, and equally good, work of the likes of STEMNet, CodeClub and their ambassadors. Part of the problem being of course that there are few people with experience from both sides of the fence to act as advisors or mentors.

So perhaps we should start promoting the other E in parallel with STEM. Let’s call it Encouraging Science, Technology, Engineering, Enterprise and Maths: ESTEEM. How’s that for creativity?

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder

P.S. Next Generation Innovators, part of the Malvern Festival of Innovation‘s schools outreach programme, will this year be encouraging students to think about innovation in both STEM and Enterprise.

Cyber Security: Can we innovate fast enough?

Standard

Some sectors seem to develop faster than others. The computer industry has always been a fast-track innovator fuelled by miniaturisation, a hunger for speed, and a creative community that has brought us the Internet, phone apps, tablets and now the promise of the Internet of Things.  How many other industries have delivered so much and consistently managed to lower the price for a given level of performance in the way the IT industry has?

But in parallel we have had to deal with a darker side of innovation: viruses, hackers, phishers and fraud. Our reliance on all things silcon from running our business to running our social lives is now under threat from others who can defraud our business and take over our lives.

The question is, can we keep up? The first challenge is that the industry needs to constantly develop new defences against cyber attacks, new algorithms to encrypt passwords, and new processes to plug vulnerabilities.  Then we, as the users, have to keep up too. We now have numerous accounts, numerous profiles, and a proliferation of data in cloud services and on devices. All of these are protected by our passwords that ideally need to be growing in complexity, changed frequently, and different for each service we use.  And as this trend continues, we start to feel the fatigue of staying abreast of it all and wondering if we can continue to function in this fast-paced world.

Interestingly, as a species, we have probably been here before. I’m sure the Stone Age man wondered how he could live in a world as bronze tools emerged and accelerated the pace of change in all walks of life he was accustomed to; hunting, gathering, farming, and crafting. And at the same time he no doubt feared the bronze weapons being unleashed on his world and wondered if he could develop defences against them as they became sharper, longer, heavier and more accurate.

More recently we had the industrial revolution in which people feared the speed and capability of the motorcar, train, plane and robotic production line. As these new inventions allowed us to travel at high speeds across land and water, so too they enabled nations to engage in warfare and espionage. As a race, though, we pulled through again.

Cyber does offer its own new challenges however.  In a way, it allows numerous layers of reality (or virtual reality) to be created, so things become very much more abstract. It is harder for our brains to rationalise abstract things like data. Is it valuable? how does it really affect our privacy and those around us? is it dangerous? and so forth.

The good news is that so far it looks like we can innovate fast enough. Our systems haven’t melted down yet, and there are plenty of new services and interesting new defences emerging each day.  We’ll hear about some of these at the Festival this year: the Internet of Things, cyber security, Big Data, assurance of complex systems, new approaches to passwords and encryption, etc. Assuming of course we’re not out-paced in the next few weeks and everything starts to unravel…

Adrian Burden, Festival Founder