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Beep Adams in talks to put 3D printers in all Brooklyn schools

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He wants to be the prince of prints.

Borough President Adams has approached Brooklyn 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot about outfitting every public school in the borough with a 3D printer — and he says money is no object.

“Whatever it costs to do it, we’re going to be fully all in,” Adams said.

And it could cost quite a bit.

MakerBot’s latest models range from $1,300 to $6,500 depending on size and features, and Brooklyn has nearly 1,000 public schools — and that’s not even counting maintenance costs and the pricey spools of plastic “ink” needed for the printers to do their thing. But the potential benefit to students outweighs any of Borough Hall’s fiscal reservations, according to the Beep.

“This whole concept is all pennies on the dollar,” he said.

Growth in the country’s tech and engineering sectors far outpaces that in traditional industries, and borough schools need to provide better access to advanced technologies to prepare kids for that expanding job market, Adams said.

“Book-learning is so old-school,” he said. “We need a curriculum that prepares today’s students for the jobs of tomorrow — and today. In order to make tech education successful, it must be hands-on.”

The Beep took a similar position on borough libraries during a sit-down with this paper last month.

Now Adams, MakerBot, and the school system are figuring out how to make the plan financially feasible.

The head of MakerBot — which recently opened a new factory in Sunset Park — wouldn’t say yet whether he’d cut Adams a bulk deal, because talks are in the early stages.

“We have some great ideas in place — we’ll share them, but we’re still developing those ideas,” said MakerBot chief executive Jonathan Jaglom.

Adams’s office hasn’t identified any grants available to lower his plan’s potential burden on taxpayers, but he indicated he may fund the plan with his council-allocated capital budget. He plans to use more than 75 percent of his $61.67 million 2016 budget to improve technology in schools, he said.

But there are recurring costs that the Beep can’t fund through his capital budget, like maintenance and ink — or in this case, spools of plastic filament.

The spools run $40 a pop and would likely last a classroom about a month, Jaglom said. And the MakerBot charges $290 a year for maintenance, which means schools might spend $870 a year to keep machines printing. Extrapolating that figure, it would cost $848,250 annually to maintain a 3D printer at each Brooklyn public school — including publicly funded, privately run charter schools, which Adams is including in his plan.

But the maintenance plan may not completely cover schools needs. A recently filed class-action lawsuit against MakerBot alleges that it knowingly sold faulty “smart extruders” — essentially the machine’s printer head, which costs $175. The maintenance plan lets customers request replacement parts or mail in their device for service a total of four times per year — but only covers two replacement extruders a year, which could leave schools on the hook if MakerBot doesn’t fix its apparent extruder problem.

And there are places Adams could offset the cost of buying the printers.

Basic design software is available free online, and developers like Autodesk, which makes the architecture industry standard AutoCAD, offer free licenses to educational institutions.

And software and printers are intuitive enough that students can show teachers the ropes, a Bay Ridge educator said.

“When I first came in, I couldn’t run the 3D printer,” said Visitation Academy science teacher Mary Ann McGrath after the private school added one of the mini manufacturing machines to its program. “The girls showed me.”

The Department of Education supports Adams’s plan, but individual schools make decisions about whether to purchase technology like 3D printers, so implementation — and funding — won’t come from the top, a spokesman said.

The Beep has yet to deliver his pre-election passion project — transforming the Canarsie bazaar into a gourmet destination where restaurants grow all their produce on hydroponic “vertical farms.” But putting 3D printers into all of Brooklyn’s schools might cement his place in history, Jaglom said.

“He wants it to be his legacy,” he said.

Reach reporter Max Jaeger at mjaeger@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–8303. Follow him on Twitter @JustTheMax.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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