Thinking differently

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Mark Palmer is a 2001 Kingston High School graduate who for the past nine months has been director of industrial design for MakerBot, the trendy and wildly successful six-year-old startup 3D-printer-maker bought a year and a half ago by Stratasys, another maker. Brooklyn-based MakerBot, which employs 600 people, is widely touted to be the poster child for the rapidly growing field of mainstream 3D printing. Mark Palmer well qualifies as one of the firm’s rising stars.

An offhand comment quoted two weeks ago in Crain’s New York Business summed up the rarefied status MakerBot has assumed in the firmament of New York City’s diverse and dynamic tech culture. To get state Start-Up New York tax incentives, an anonymous “Brooklyn-based tech entrepreneur” was quoted as complaining, “You need to be a Jersey-based version of MakerBot or something.” Could there be higher praise?

MakerBot espouses ambitious goals. Though not uncriticized by some for its business decisions, the Brooklyn-based firm sees itself as the lofty cutting edge of a revolutionary technological ecosystem. “At MakerBot we want to change the world,” CEO Jenny Lawton said recently. “We’re leading the next industrial revolution, and there’s a lot of work left to be done.”

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Lawton was in New Paltz Wednesday, February 25, to deliver a talk titled “Twelve Years From Now” to about 300 listeners in a campus lecture hall. In  a world where certainty about the future is rare, one of the few things we probably count on is that most American children now entering primary education will graduate high school twelve years from now. That turned out to be the twelve years Lawton was talking about.

Try to visualize the world’s kids twelve years from now. What will they worry about? What will they take for granted? What skills, devices and tools will they have, and how they use them? What might they make of the opportunity, Lawton asked, to transform a virtual concept into something real and tangible, and then work on a conceptual level again to improve the object they have made?

These are tough questions. Nobody, not even as thoughtful a strategic thinker about technology as Jenny Lawton, really knows the answers. What we do know, she made clear, is that MakerBot and other 3-D printer manufacturers will make the tools, and the kids will use them.

 

Skunkworks of skilled people

SUNY New Paltz has bought into 3D printing in a big way. It’s been an early adopter of the technology. It has made it the hands-on cornerstone of its new program in mechanical engineering, and has established a MakerBot Innovation Center. It is using the equipment for a variety of creative purposes in the liberal arts, and opened its doors to local tinkerers and entrepreneurs. And last week SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian announced a partnership “to link this technology to our friends at the community colleges and continue to serve the region through this initiative.”

Mark Palmer comes back upstate frequently. He has visited classes at Kingston High and SUNY New Paltz. He sees the possibility of a sort of hyperlocal high-tech environment, a skunkworks of well-educated and skilled people who are constantly forming networks to tackle design and manufacturing projects, from producing traditional types of goods to cutting-edge digitally designed and manufactured products. That ecosystem isn’t going to happen to the same degree everywhere, and it’s important for places that want to be in a strong position in the marketplace to get ahead of the game. And to stay ahead of it.

Palmer is rooting for the Hudson Valley to be one of the pioneering places of the digital manufacturing field. Is the region up to the challenge?

3D printing is emerging as a powerful enabling technology. “As output eventually shifts from traditionally produced goods to printed end-use products or objects,” Palmer explains, “the design rules change.” The technology introduces disruptive modes of design and production, disturbing long-cultivated learning patterns. With additive manufacturing, many of the old rules applicable to an earlier era are gone.

Making things a new way, innovators have to learn new approaches to shaping objects. The transformation causes “weird shifts,” Palmer says. The process is at the same time both more tangible and more abstract because of reduced constraints, requiring diversified skills, a dynamic approach to technology application, and a receptive mind.

“Holding or testing something early in the design process changes the way you think about it,” he maintains. “The faster you can make something physical, the faster you can progress its design, and 3D printing enables this acceleration.”

 

Palmer’s journey

Kate Heidecker, a fellow graduate of Kingston High School in 2001 and now director of communications for Kingston’s school district, had never met Mark Palmer until she interviewed him last month. She found his story “extra-cool.” In her excellent interview published by the school district, Heidecker recently recounted Palmer’s career path.

“Traditional math classes without context just didn’t appeal to me,” Palmer told Heidecker. In high school he focused on taking as many arts and design classes as possible, and he was “glad to see a lot of those courses are still around.” At SUNY Ulster he studied graphic design and photography. An ongoing industrial design internship with Scott Gibson of New Sun Productions in Highland provided him some of the real-life experience he sought.

Armed with his UCCC associate’s degree, Palmer spent a year in the fine-art metalworking and sculpture programs at SUNY New Paltz. Though he respected the classical techniques he was taught, he felt he wasn’t getting enough exposure to modern technology and processes such as computer-assisted design tools. Eager to venture into the field of industrial design, he transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology.

In his two years in Rochester, Palmer focused completely on his major along with a concentration in mechanical engineering and technology studies. Graduating at the top of his class, he took first place in a prestigious regional student design competition, and was named, according to Heidecker, one of the top five design students nationally in 2006.

Taking a job at Motorola, he specialized in designing hand-held technology products. Palmer was lead designer in developing FedEx’s current handheld scanner and the self-pay scanner used by customers at Stop ’N’ Shop and other grocery chains.

He finds “a lot of great energy” at MakerBot’s Industry City offices in Brooklyn. The company provides an excellent support network, and very bright people are constantly bouncing ideas off each other. Palmer thinks of all of New York City as a business accelerator, a place that provides a nurturing and exciting atmosphere for developing new ideas and growing businesses. Local economic developers are increasingly trying to attract elements of that New York City ecosystem to the Hudson Valley.

In stressing the importance of both a strong creative and strong technical background, Palmer aligns himself with the message of the SUNY New Paltz digital design and fabrication certificate program and the new mechanical engineering curriculum. Declares a recent college publication, “3D printing at SUNY New Paltz integrates the college’s strengths in engineering, computer science, technology, and the innovation and creativity of the arts.”

Luckily, the thirst for knowledge outpaces even the most advanced school programs. Kids are excited by the possibilities offered by 3D printers. Palmer finds that often they’ve learned more about new technologies from YouTube lessons than from their teachers. The teachers may not know what’s coming next, but the kids do.

The old saying that there’s no such thing as teaching, only learning, may be particularly applicable to new technology. “The last person I want to hire is a traditional, by-the-numbers thinker, or someone who can’t think creatively and abstractly,” Mark Palmer told Heidecker. “It’s modern education’s responsibility to help students think creatively and approach problems in unconventional ways. A lot of businesses like to use the term ‘innovation’ because it is flashy and impressive, but it all stems from taking a step back…and thinking differently about things.”

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