Machine Design recently had sort of a contest for the best toy for STEM. Spoiler: Lego won, but it was a hard fight with some good stuff. Which is good for the 10-12 crowd. The problem is that Lego, while great, it pretty limited. This is true with all the toys, which I played with when I was young. They basically guide you down a making track.
I think that it must be understood that is you want kids to be makers, you have to accept that your are going expect that they will be dealing with a higher level of risk and injury. The more you make the higher the power of the tools you use. We need to bring back shop class where maker kids can get their hand on tools under the supervision of people who’ve already cut their fingers. Just so that they understand that a little blood is part of the learning process.
The big problem a maker will encounter in life is that he or she will hit the creative wall. If you are creative you will move from the kits that are supplied to you to things you do yourself. You are limited though, by what’s available. That’s especially true if you are a 14 year old. The problem we have here in the US is that we’ve managed create a huge making hole. We have craft stores which are primarily targeted toward women. We have hobby stores, though they are shrinking which basically sell kits targeted for specific markets. We have Art Stores which are targeted toward to well, paint and art. Then there are the hardware stores which are going away as well and the big box home stores. These though are targeted to homeowners. Yes you can get some stuff there, but you quickly run into a wall.
Tech shop has helped on the education end, at least where there is one. Makerspaces help too. But there are too few of those and they may not be able to cover everything you need to overcome your limitations. There’s also the problem of what happens when
A lot of the tools and stuff that are most helpful for makers are hidden behind dealers intended for industry. While it’s fairly easy to get tools for woodworking, getting tools and equipment for metal working is far more difficult. I can’t tell you the hurdles it took to get my little Sherline lathe and mill. If not for the internet it would have been impossible. While there are small Chinese mills and lathes out there, getting tooling for them gets difficult. That’s especially true if you don’t know what you are doing. The same stuff happens if you try to work with sheet metal. Yes you can get tools from Harbor Freight, but those are Harbor Freight quality.
Then there’s the problem of getting materials. Most makers aren’t going to want to have to buy industrial quantities of aluminum and steel. Especially when all you need is a 1″ square by 1/2″ block. OK, you can order from online metals and get a one inch sq x 6 in 6061 overnight. Still that mean you have to stop, pull up your browser, go to the site and make the order. And then wait. Then you have to cut you piece off and face it when all you really wanted was some holes, tapped. If the tap breaks you have to do it all over.
Online metals and McMaster Carr fill most of the gap but mail order means that you can’t just go down and get it right away. When you are working on a project being able to do that can be essential. Especially when you run out of something.
What happens, though when you just want to browse for ideas? Or you don’t know exactly what you need? Well then you are going to have to invest a chunk of money and time to figure that stuff out. Most of said time being waiting for stuff to come in and money because you ordered the wrong thing, or what you ordered didn’t work the way you expected.
What the maker community needs is a retail outlet or chain that’s more less dedicated to having the sort of stuff that makers and builders need. It might have some of the things that a home center does, but it needs a lot more. Even the stuff that a home center is SUPPOSED to have on the shelf often isn’t available in the quantities needed for even a small project. There’s that frustrating chase for blind rivets for my toolboxes that comes to mind. When you need to drive around for the better part of a day chasing down rivets, it’s not a good thing. Chasing down aluminum angle stock, to say nothing about sheet metal and the project gets bogged down pretty fast.
What’s needed is a place where all that sort of stuff is available. That doesn’t exist in the US. It does exist in Japan though.
Here are some pics. Welcome to the hardware floor at Tokyu Hands.
This is one floor of Tokyu hands, which is a HUGE store, or rather chain of stores in Tokyo filled with all the usual stuff from arts, crafts and other stuff. But the hardware store floor is just made for makers. It has all the tools and supplies, such as sheet metal that anybody would need. In addition to the usual stuff that you find in hardware stores in the US, including a US rural mailbox(I couldn’t figure out why) there’s the stuff that the hardware stores DON”T carry, such as ball bearings and blocks of precut metals and plastics. They also sell small lathes and mills. I’ve worked in a hardware store in the past and I know hardware and still this place blew my mind. If you are working on projects, this is the kind of place you want. Just something to think about.