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Inexpensive CNC Machines Turn Students Into Manufacturers


The world of manufacturing is certainly changing. Increasingly, it doesn't involve people, but robotic power tools known as CNC, or computer-numerical-control machines. Let's hear now about a California company that's working to make that technology accessible to kids.

Jon Kalish has the story.

JON KALISH, BYLINE: Otherlab is a research and development firm housed in a former pipe organ factory in the Mission District of San Francisco. The organs that were made here were used to rouse religious congregations. The hope now is that the affordable CNC machines being manufactured in this space will inspire very small manufacturers and high school students.

SAUL GRIFFITH: Civilization is built on tools, and these are the most powerful tools that civilization has ever been able to produce, because the computer can give precision that your hand never will.

KALISH: Saul Griffith won a MacArthur genius grant in 2007 for his work on a machine that manufactures low-cost eyeglass lenses, and a comic book called "Howtoons" that explains science and engineering to kids. Griffith is passionate about preparing students for the technological challenges of the 21st Century.

GRIFFITH: Computer-controlled machines and robots are the future of manufacturing everywhere on Earth. We need to be teaching American kids how to use them and design and build them now.

KALISH: Griffith's latest start-up is the Other Machine Company, which makes a CNC machine small enough to sit on a desktop. It's a 13-inch cube called the Othermill, and can cut anything softer than stainless steel. The Othermill can be used to make every thing from jewelry to printed circuit boards for robots. And here's the important thing: It sells for just $1,500. That's an incredible bargain, considering that dentists and jewelers use a similar-size CNC mill that sells for $20,000.


KALISH: Corinne Okada Takara is a technology educator based in Silicon Valley. She can't wait to get her hands on the Other Machine Company's next desktop CNC machine, which is currently in development. It'll be called the Othercutter, and will use an Exacto knife blade to cut cardboard.

CORINNE OKADA TAKARA: You need to have a low-cost material for exploration, because a lot of the schools don't have the funds to buy the special plastics.

KALISH: Special plastics shaped by a laser cutter, which is more expensive and dangerous than a cardboard cutter. Cheap tools and materials will allow students to design, revise and try again.

TAKARA: It's a dance between the physical and the digital, and we need to be engaging students in that back-and-forth dance.

KALISH: One manufacturing expert thinks that smaller, cheaper computer-numeric-controlled machines could have a big impact on education. Jerry Jasinowski is an economist and former president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

JERRY JASINOWSKI: It's wonderful to make things. But to be able to conceive conceptually of how to make it and then to actually execute it puts making and design together, so that manufacturing is brought back to the very creative, almost artistic kind of activity it was to begin with. And I think that's very exciting, and I think that'll turn kids on.

KALISH: Otherlab's founder, Saul Griffith, says that's one of his goals: getting students to use computer-aided design software with CNC machines, so they get excited about studying manufacturing.

GRIFFITH: There's no science to say that this is going to be a better education. But it's hard to believe that it's not going to be better than just reading a book or looking at a blackboard.

KALISH: For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jon Kalish