by Joseph Flaherty)
Leo the Maker Prince is a twee tale about a Brooklyn-based engineer-in-training named Diana, and Leo, a 3-D printer robot that transforms her drawings into functional objects. It’s a heartwarming story, equal parts The Little Prince and Bre Pettis, and it’s squarely aimed at the bedtime rotation of children with maker parents. What separates it from other stories is that kiddos can follow Diana’s lead and produce the characters and objects from the book on their own 3-D printers.
Author Carla Diana had been using 3-D printers for years at innovation consultancies like Frog Design, and was known for singing the praises of the emerging technology. “It almost felt like showing someone a new magic trick, and then getting to reveal how the trick works so that others could do it, too,” she says. Hoping to spread the word among the preschool set, Diana decided to write a book.
Each item was designed to teach kids the capabilities of these machines.
Leo the Maker Prince has two goals: First, blow minds with examples of the the amazing things 3-D printers can do—from manufacturing products to printing hamburgers. Second, inspire kids to master their MakerBot skills by printing a series of custom products of Diana’s design.
As cool as the story is, the objects steal the show. Each item was carefully designed to advance the plot, but also to teach kids the diverse capabilities of these machines. By following along with the book, kids craft action figure avatars of Diana and Leo, produce musical instruments, a chess set, and even print a functional habitat for a hamster.
3-D printing is easy enough for grade schoolers to pick up conceptually, but the actual production process can be maddening, even for experienced engineers. To streamline printing, Diana designed the products to be manufactured easily. Parts are wider at the bottom than the top, making them less likely to fail. The objects are small, leading to faster prints and more immediate gratification. Each design is kid-friendly, instantly recognizable, and provides exposure to the myriad ways 3-D printers can be used. “I wanted to empower them with visions of how 3-D printing can be used by people in their everyday lives,” she says.
The book is meant for beginners, but Diana wanted to build the hacking ethos early. When printing an instrument, kids are instructed to place some small objects, like coins or beads, inside of a void, mid-print. The tiny objects are sealed inside as the print finishes, creating a rattle and demonstrating the power of creative hacking.
Some applications had to be handled with kid gloves. “There’s been a lot of news around 3-D printed prosthetics and body parts, but this seemed just a little too, well, icky, for this kid’s book,” says Diana. Instead, she created a plot twist that called for a custom fit sandal which addresses the same principle without the need to focus on traumatic amputations.
’3-D printed body parts seemed just a little too icky for this kid’s book,’ says Diana.
Writing the book even helped Diana to expand her skill set. To create the jewelry designs featured in the book, she taught herself to manipulate 3-D models using the Python programming language. The exercise led to some killer bling, but also an important lesson for the readers. “It was important to me to teach kids the connection between math and design, and also important to me to make this character female,” says Diana.
Kids with access to a 3-D printer in their home, or membership to a hackerspace, may have fun creating these characters, but the real payoff may take a decade to materialize. “I found it fascinating that experts working at 3-D printing companies like Makerbot admitted that although we know this technology will change life as we know it, we can’t say for certain exactly how,” says Diana.
Adults who are being exposed to 3-D printing today appreciate it’s capabilities, but tend to get hung up on deficiencies in printer speed, material quality, or business models. These are all important factors, yet likely blind people to the true power of the technology. “I truly believe that we don’t know what kinds of artifacts, processes and manufacturing techniques can emerge from 3-D printing,” says Diana. “It can completely change everything we know about design and production.”