Help me put 3D printers in UK schools

First published in the Financial Times on 25th March 2014.

I need one or two co-sponsors for my drive to install machines and instruct teachers this year

If I had my life again I know what I would do: I’d be an inventor. I can think of nothing more creatively and intellectually rewarding than devising and making wonderful new products. As Nikola Tesla, one of the greatest inventors, said: “I do not think there is any thrill that can go through the human heart like that felt by the inventor as he sees some creation of his brain unfolding to success . . . Such emotions make a man forget food, sleep, friends, love everything.”

Now it could be argued that one is never too old to switch careers: after all, I’ve dabbled in a few fields over the decades – restaurants, stockbroking, television, healthcare – and even writing for newspapers. But I have always held the view that inventing is a younger person’s game; or at least, a pursuit one should embark upon at a young age.

After all, Blaise Pascal was 19 when he invented the world’s first mechanical adding machine in 1642; another Frenchman, Louis Braille, was just 15 in 1824 when he developed an ingenious system of reading and writing by means of raised dots. Alexander Graham Bell started working on his ideas for transmitting speech at the age of just 18, while George Westinghouse filed his first patent for a rotary steam engine at the age of 19. From Guglielmo Marconi to Thomas Edison, the list of inventors who had breakthroughs or key insights at a young age is long.

As Jonathan Swift wrote, “invention is the talent of youth, as judgment is of age”. But even if I can’t be an inventor, I can perhaps encourage others to start inventing early. And a device that is built for such activity is the 3D printer.

This is a basic industrial robot that uses additive manufacturing to make solid objects following digital instructions. The technology is perfect for prototyping and has applications across thousands of fields, from engineering to medical devices.

But it may be that its greatest impact will be in education. Such machines are capable of inspiring thousands of teenage “makers”, who could become fully fledged inventors and fabricators.

The opportunity to learn how to build tangible products from scratch while using cutting-edge technology might help transform our culture in practical ways. After all, many experts in Britain are keen to see us revive our manufacturing industries, which now make up less than 12 per cent of gross domestic product – half what they did in 1980. This is all part of a desire to rebalance our economy away from an over-dependence on sectors such as financial services.

After all, manufacturing contributes disproportionately to exports and stimulates research and development, as well as investment. Making things can lead to well-paid jobs and boost productivity – a key contributor to long-term growth and higher living standards.

I think the best straightforward way we can stimulate innovation and manufacturing at the ground level at a modest cost would be to put a 3D printer in every secondary school – and possibly each primary school. 3D printers are about bespoke, craft, micro-manufacturing – not mass production – hence perfect for classrooms.

I believe this initiative is so vital that I will part-fund the project, if one or two other co-sponsors come on board as well. We will need not just 3D printers but training and materials.

One might say that financing and executing this plan is the government’s job: but waiting for the state to find the budget and then implement the scheme could take years. There is no time to be lost. We should be installing this equipment and instructing teachers across the country this year.

Just as early home computers in the 1980s were instrumental in teaching whole generations to code, so those young people who gain access to 3D printers will acquire the skills and confidence to experiment and pioneer in manufacturing.

So please, can any individual or organisation that agrees that this is a project of national importance send me an email offering their support. In the coming weeks I aim to form a task force to organise the logistics. The home of the industrial revolution is set to become a world-class workshop once more.