Meet the makers: GE Garages and the future of industrial entrepreneurship

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As the MENA region grapples with non-hydrocarbon diversification in the aftermath of the oil price shock, a slew of strategic announcements by the UAE are mapping out an industrial manufacturing economic future.

According to Dubai nearly 25 percent of the city’s construction will be 3D-printed by 2030, with the emirate’s 3D printing strategy estimated to contribute $300 million to the world economy by 2025.

As such the world’s first fully functional 3D-printed building is not in Germany or Japan, but an office in Dubai’s Emirates Towers, and it’s a mark of just how important the UAE considers futuristic manufacturing to its future.

Budding efforts for industrial education in MENAT

While these developments unfold, there are still the barriers of education and awareness of the fairly nascent advanced manufacturing industry in the UAE – and MENA at large; a gap that General Electric (GE), as both a corporate mega-player and beneficiary of this growth, is actively tackling.

Enter GE Garages, a global pop-up concept that aims to raise awareness around advanced manufacturing technologies.

A GE Garage in Turkey. (Images via GE)

Its mission is focused on “shifting the mindset that the barriers for entry into industrial [entrepreneurship] are too high. We want entrepreneurs to understand that manufacturing is being democratized,” Kirsten Kutz Colombier, GE innovation communications manager, told Wamda.

The garage concept regionally started in Algeria in 2014 as part of a challenge for local suppliers to supply parts or processes for the manufacturing of GE gas turbines. The roster of partners includes Sylabs in Algeria, ecommerce site Hobby District in Saudi Arabia and creative community space Atolye in Turkey.

In the UAE garage projects include a year-long deal with the UAE Ministry of Energy to run a series of advanced manufacturing workshops for employees of government and semi-government organization such as ADNOC, the Petroleum Institute Abu Dhabi and Jabal Ali Free Zone. The UAE setup is no longer pop-up - it’s here to stay, with everything from 3D printers to CNC (computer numerical control) milling machines and injection molders.

“You can come in with in with an idea, create a 3D file of it, print it, change it, adjust it, build prototypes and reprint it on more sophisticated machinery; and then actually start small-scale manufacturing,” Colombier said.

A grassroots approach to industrial entrepreneurship

The UAE garage is partnering with local startups to target a much younger age group as well.

Their most recent partnership was with both Makersbuilders and GEMS Education for Make.Code.Tinker, for a  four-week-long series of sessions for children, on 3D printing, modelling, coding, ideation and creation. The program introduced 20 students to visual and audio programming, helping them create a creative tech project.

In Abu Dhabi the target audience was girls, as GEMS Education innovation leader Christine Nasserghodsi told Wamda there was a lot of evidence that girls’ interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects starts to drop between grades six and eight.

GE's Ecomagination event.

A separate GEMS and GE Garages partnership produced a six-week program where up to 20 students from Cambridge International School Abu Dhabi went through advanced manufacturing training. In turn, students became the tutors in another Makersbuilders robotics workshop conducted for children during the UAE Innovation Week.

The announcement of Dubai’s ambitions for 3D printing followed the launch of the 
Dubai Future Agenda, in which UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum approved a 1 billion dirham (US$272 million) Future Endowment Fund into innovation.

Composite aero-structures manufacturing facility Strata, owned by Abu Dhabi government investment vehicle Mubadala, estimates that manufacturing contributed up to 14 percent to the UAE economy in 2015 – itself having crossed the 400 million dirham (US$109 million) revenue mark in 2015.

Growing industrial education from micro to macro projects

Nasserghodsi said maker education lay in pedagogy rather than sophisticated equipment.

“Schools have – in broad terms – abundant resources when it comes to people and equipment. At the same time, they don’t have what they need to do what they want to do,” she said. “The question is: how does that translate into practice in a school context?”

Makersbuilders founder Amir Yazdanpanah is one such link. Five years ago he came up with the concept with his own children when he spotted an education gap around future tech in Dubai.

A Makersbuilders class. (Image via Makersbuilders)

A pilot with GEMS followed last year, through which the startup offered students after-school programs in robotics and 3D technologies. Another summer camp with GEMS then snowballed to other schools in the UAE.

Makersbuilders has since run numerous partnership programs with GE out of its Ecomagination Innovation Center, secured funding from Turn8 – where it also runs some of the workshops – and, recently, a sponsorship from DP World for a summer program.

With funding remaining a key challenge, Yazdanpanah hopes financial and other support from Dubai foundations and corporations can scale and monetize such projects to a national level.

The slow profitability cycle of education service startups was a problem for securing investors looking for quick ROI turnarounds, he said. This challenge could be overcome with the financial backing of semi-governmental entities that were prioritizing social impact over revenue.

“This could be the alternative school of the future,” said Yazdanpanah, adding that several schools had approached Makersbuilders to outsource their ICT teaching.   

GEMS Education has also been tapping into Millions Learning, a Brookings Institution project identifying where and how education interventions bring quality learning to children in the developing world.

“A lot of the work that our R&D team conducts looks at doing this in a way that is as low-cost as possible so that anything we are doing can be scaled across schools regardless of the tuition,” Nasserghodsi said.

On a longer, more sustainable term, she said the crossover of new tech with more traditional subjects at schools was a priority in driving new learning across GEMS schools.

Platforms backed by corporations like GE’s garages can speed up this transformation.

“The barrier for entry for the industrial [sector] is lower than people think. I’d love to have the product of our garages to scale into a technology that is being adopted,” said Colombier.

But GE, Makersbuilders, GEMS Education and all others involved in helping children understand industrial manufacturing are up against a lack of awareness, Colombier said, yet the lack of many critical skill sets is a problem these organisations are fixing.

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