Big Idea

3D magic

3Dexter puts the fun back in learning for school kids across the country

NK Shyamsukha has been running over 250 chartered accountancy training institutes across the country called ICA Edu Skills for the past 25 years. It was in the middle of 2016, while attending an education exhibition in Delhi that he came across a very young team of the 3D printing startup, 3Dexter. They were seven co-founders, all 22-year-olds. More than the technology, what captured Shyamsukha’s attention was the energy and the enthusiasm of the youngsters who put in all their efforts to explain the concept of 3D printing to delegates and parents. In September, he invested Rs.1 crore in the startup through EduLift, an initiative that hopes to combine education with technology.

Delhi-based 3Dexter aims at providing experiential hands-on learning to school students through 3D printing technology. The startup provides a 3D printer with materials, the curriculum, 3D pens and a teacher to schools. Using these, the students can make 3D models of anything ranging from the human heart to a molecular structure to smart cities — a technique that would give a better understanding of the concepts, over 2D diagrams in more interesting ways. 

Estimated to be worth around US $30.19 billion by 2022, 3D printing or additive manufacturing is an industry that has been around for 30 years. While companies like Nike, GE, Boeing and Ford have been using 3D printing to develop prototypes and final products with increased efficiency levels, the technology only recently started gaining steam in India.

“I had come across a lot of companies that sold 3D printers. But 3Dexter was the only one who had actually developed a 3D printing curriculum and integrated it with the school curriculum,” says Shyamsukha. 

While the startup was launched in June 2015, the seven co-founders Raunak Singhi, Nikunj Singhal, Shantanu Kwatra, Smarth Vasdev, Raghav Sareen, Partha Batra and Naman Singhal knew each other long before that, having been close friends since childhood and studying in the same school. 

Close to becoming graduates, the group, equally passionate about education and technology, began thinking of startup ideas. The team started their research and considered segments like online delivery, car servicing and fashion before zeroing in on education. It was then that Smarth Vasdev suggested the idea of 3D printing. It was perfect, “because we found 3D printing could bring together both our passions: education and technology,” says Raunak Singhi, co-founder, 3Dexter which is named after a cartoon series about a young boy and his ingenious scientific inventions, Dexter’s Laboratory

In June 2015, they started forming a curriculum for students in classes 3-9 and did an extensive six-month research before completing it. “We devised a curriculum which could enhance their academics with the help of 3D printing,” says Singhi. By December, the curriculum was complete and it was time to launch the product. Maxfort School in Dwarka, Delhi opened its gates for them. “We did a three month course for 350 students including everything from appraisals to teaching and collecting feedback on our own. It helped us improve our curriculum,” he says.

The 3Dexter teacher would teach kids how to design and print objects and assist school teachers as well. “Suppose a biology teacher is having difficulty in teaching students about a particular topic that involves explaining through a diagram, say the functioning of the heart. She can go ask our teacher for a 3D model. Our curriculum consists of assessment reports, quarterly projects, even competitions and annual projects where kids are given themes like smart cities, amusement parks and life on Mars,” says Singhi. 

The package costs Rs.6 lakh to Rs.8 lakh initially and comes down to between Rs.3 lakh to Rs.3.5 lakh the second year onwards, with the printer becoming a school asset. 

Are the printers used by the company any different from the 3D printers available in the market? Initially, the founders bought a 3D printer, studied it in detail and then re-engineered and designed another one that would best suit schools’ requirement. “Our school printers differ from the ones we provide to colleges or to others for industrial use. The key features that we have kept in mind while creating our own 3D printer are portability, affordability, ease of use and connectivity. Our average 3D printer ranges from Rs.80,000 to Rs.1 lakh, ” Singhi notes. Since their printer was designed in-house, the team has filed for a patent for the same. “Every part of the printer is sourced locally and we assemble it ourselves fully,” says Singhi. A two-year warranty is given for the product. 

The first school they worked with liked them well enough to seal a deal with them in April 2016. Thereon, the company decided to reach out to other schools. The startup struggled for six to eight months trying to convince school authorities about the perks of the concept. Managements either had no awareness about 3D printing or were wary of integrating 3D printing with their curriculum. Many mistook it as being just another form of 2D printing. So, the team started carrying a 3D printer with them for every meeting. 

By January 2017, the team managed to close deals with ten schools. They also started receiving referrals from principals and teachers who found the idea exciting. The 28-membered 3Dexter team has 25 schools on board today — ten in New Delhi, two in Bihar, one in Kolkata, one in Maharashtra and the remaining in Gujarat. 

Finding teachers who knew about 3D printing was the next challenge. There were people with knowledge about 3D printing, there were people who knew how to teach kids, but where could one find people with a combined knowledge of both? “We started collaborating with colleges, where we brought in mechanical and electronics engineering graduates. They were very familiar with the technical aspect, but they didn’t know how to teach students. So we started training them for two months,” says Singhi. 3Dexter presently has 20 teachers out of which 15 teach students in their respective schools and five invest time in constantly improvising the 3D printing curriculum. 

With 3Dexter now targeting schools pan India, finding people with the right skills set can be challenging. So the team at 3Dexter is already working on a solution to overcome this challenge.  “We are curating a new product where we will be centralising everything from the 3Dexter portal. All our lessons, resources and video tutorials will be available on the portal, so, schools will not need our staff to assist their teachers. All assessments will also be done on this portal. We are calling this product ‘3Dexter education bundle’, and we will be launching it in the month of August,” says Singhi, adding that they might be allotting one staff member for a group of schools for occasional assistance and quality assurance. The startup is also looking at a model, in which the school teachers would be trained for a year by the 3Dexter staff.

Gen-x printing
3D printing models are created by depositing thin layers of material. The material installed at the backside of the printer is squirted in a liquid form through a nozzle and the model is shaped according to the design created using computer-aided design (CAD) software. The technology saves time and effort and reduces wastage of material compared to the traditional ways of building models. 

3Dexter uses polylactic acid — a biodegradable and non-toxic form of plastic — as the material. “We supply both hardware and software. All you need to do is create a design, save it on the memory card, insert it to the printer and give the final command. Plastic will then melt down and layer by layer it will form the whole object, hence the name additive manufacturing,” elaborates Singhi. 

The students can use a 3D printer or a 3D pen for modelling. The initial two months are for imagination and creativity. “If you ask them to create a molecular structure in the very first class, they won’t be interested. So initially we allow them to innovate as much as they can. They can make whatever they want — dream houses, dream castles, or even Iron Man,” Singhi smiles. According to Raghav Sareen, product development head, 3Dexter, one of the reasons the team targeted kids was due to their openness to ideas and boundless creativity. “We are constantly learning new things while working on the curriculum, since we get a lot of interesting inputs from the kids. They experiment on their own and keep asking questions. The kids help us a lot with improvisations in our product development,” he says. 

Given the interesting nature of the hands-on pedagogy, the results have not been surprising. In some schools, teachers note that absenteeism has come down to zero on days with a 3Dexter period. The slot is kept towards the end of the day so that the excitement in students is retained till the end. Some students stay back after taking permission to further work on models, according to teachers.  The printer even got its name from one of the students who dubbed it the Innovator.

3Dexter also seeks the help of Dileep Chenoy, former managing director of National Skill Development Corporation to form the best curriculum for kids. The curriculum allows the students to work on still models, such as the human heart, structures of diamond and graphite, etc for the first six months before they can move to working models such as catapults. The next year they would be working on robotics and electronics, which would enable them to make models like prosthetic hands. Yearly competitions are also conducted for students. 

Four schools, which have completed their year-long association with 3Dexter, are now in the second year after having renewed the contract. Himalaya School in Delhi is one of them and principal Alka Rampal is all praises for the startup and their product offering. “Kids eagerly look forward to working with 3Dexter and are so excited about it. Out of all the periods, this is the only one which is really fun for them because they don’t have to do any homework or prepare any files,” she says.

The school which has allocated five days a week for 3Dexter has introduced the concept to classes 6-9. “In the first year, it was just an introductory subject for them since it was a new concept for them. In the second year they started creating models and now they have started applying it to their subjects,” says Rampal. 

Casting a wider net
Launched with each founder pooling in Rs.25,000 (amounting to Rs.1.75 lakh in total) 3Dexter clocked a revenue of around Rs.1 crore in the year 2016-17. 

The 3Dexter team aims to close deals with 100 schools by the end of academic year 2017-18, followed by 250 schools by the end of 2018-19. “Usually it takes about three to four months for a school to finalise the deal. Thanks to our efforts, of spreading awareness about 3D printing schools have started reaching out to us now, instead of the other way around,” Singhi notes.

The founders estimate a Rs.5 crore revenue in 2017-18 as the company widens its footprint across the country. They are targeting a revenue of Rs.15 crore in the following year as their additional initiatives gather steam. “Last year our sales were only focused towards schools. This year we have broadened our horizons by including colleges, summer camps and government initiatives in our business model. By adding these revenue sources, we hope to achieve our targets,” says Shantanu Kwatra, business head at 3Dexter.

The startup plans to start offering diploma courses to colleges given the interest 3D printing has generated in schools. With Bengaluru, Chandigarh and Dehradun being the next target destinations, it is continuing its attempts at spreading awareness with workshops, exhibitions and competitions. “The workshops are aimed at spreading awareness and hence we don’t charge for them. But when it comes to the 3D printing innovation camps, we do charge about Rs.3,000 to Rs.4,000 per student. We also target hyper local markets and institutes in addition to the existing schools. In these camps, we run a short course for 10-12 days covering the designing and hardware aspects of 3D printing. We have seen great interest and have received requests for year-long activities from various institutions,” says Singhi.

With an aim to take the technology to government schools as well, the founders are planning to approach corporates who could introduce the technology to schools as part of their corporate social responsibility activities. A campaign for blind students is another project in the offing. Government initiatives like Atal Tinkering Labs, which provides schools with funds of Rs.20 lakh to set up innovation labs are also acting in their favour, the startup believes. 

The startup is also working on partnerships to create better curriculum and improvise the product. 3Dexter has already partnered with two companies — STAX3D and Sightline Maps, both from the US — for the same. “We are also trying to come up with platforms for students outside India and exchange programmes for students in association with our partners,” Sareen notes. 

Other than education, 3Dexter recently worked on an order for Maruti Suzuki, where they developed a large prototype of an engine, using 3D printing. “Till now we haven’t promoted ourselves as a service company. Working for Maruti was an exception. We only work on specific leads as our core efforts will be focused on catering to schools,” Singhi notes. But now more companies are approaching the startup for partnerships and the founders are working on a common shared pool of resources. 

There are foreign companies like Makerbot, Stratysis and Airwolf who are experimenting with 3D printing concept in education. In India, currently there are none, barring 3Dexter. “We have particularly witnessed that in this sector it takes time to convert leads and close deals. One has to remain patient and wait for the perfect opportunity. India has one of the biggest education systems and has a lot of potential to develop further. Whoever delivers the right product and an even better after-service shall be crowned as the winner,” Singhi says. The conversion ratio of schools going up to 1:10 compared to previous ratio of 1:20 gives him confidence. 

Shyamsukha is also confident about the concept taking off. “The education sector is one area that hasn’t seen much innovation in the last five years. 3D printing has the unique strength of converting imagination into reality — it’s basically empowering children. 3D Printing is making students self-reliant and motivates them to further work on their idea with the help of prototypes. Within the very first year of their operation 3Dexter is already operating in 25 schools in a market that is very difficult to grasp,” he says.

The road map for 3Dexter is clear. “Our vision is that after five years, every school should have 3D printers and teachers who know how to teach using it,” says Singhi. As early adopters of a technology waiting to boom, 3Dexter is definitely well-placed to achieve their vision.