3D-Printers: a revolution headed for your library

Betha Gutsche /

3D printing conjures notions of the Star Trek replicator—a computerized machine that can turn a verbal command into 3-dimensional objects, including food items. The evolution of 3D printers is advancing rapidly toward and even beyond that sci-fi vision. This is transformative technology. And libraries are positioned to be a hub of the transformation.

(What do you think of 3D printers in the library? Take the poll.)

A revolution: industrial and cultural

3D printing, also called rapid prototyping or additive manufacturing, is manufacturing gone digital. A digital design file, created in two dimensions on the screen, can be rendered as a 3-dimensional real-world object. In an extensive special report, The Economist magazine hails it as a key component in “the third industrial revolution.” Alongside computer-automated milling machines that have increased efficiency, 3D printers introduce the potential for short order prototyping of new designs, smaller runs of specialized products or parts, and customization to the taste or requirements of individual consumers. “These amazing machines may be able to make almost anything, anywhere—from your garage to an African village.”

[Photo: Patron pleased with her 3D-printed thing at Fayettleville Free Library's FabLab; courtesy of Theron Trowbridge on Flickr.]
[See related article Adventure in 3D Printland]

Although 3D printing machines for industry have been around for almost 30 years, they are now bursting into the personal printer market. Prices once in the $100K range have dropped below $1500 for home printer models, with forecasts of $500 or less just around the corner. The ability to design and print an object is now in the hands of anyone. In fact, it’s not even necessary to be a designer; with free databases like MakerBot’s Thingiverse, a user can pick a ready-made design to print. While attending the 3D Printshow London 2012, Christopher Barnatt, Associate Professor of Computing and Future Studies in Nottingham University Business School, observed, “This reminds me of walking around a PC show back in 1987; at that time personal computers had clearly not transformed the world but the foundation had been laid. It’s the same thing here today.” Many predict that 3D printers will be ubiquitous in 5-10 years, as common as desktop printers are today, triggering as big a cultural shift as the Internet has.

Maker culture in the library

It is one leap of understanding to grasp that the science fiction of the replicator is essentially a here-and-now reality; it’s another leap to understand how and why libraries need to be on the leading edge of this disruptive wave. Artist Thomas Gokey, who has taught an "Innovation in Public Libraries" class at the Fayetteville (NY) Free Library, offers a compelling insight into this radical but tangible shift in his 10-minute video on Public Libraries, 3D Printing, FabLabs and Hackerspaces. “What we’re talking about here is the democratization of the means of production,” Gokey enthuses. Creating a space for 3D printing in the library “where people gather to share their knowledge and help each other” aligns naturally with the deep history of public libraries as engines of democracy and centers of discovery.

In fact, Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) claims to be the first library to have ventured forth across this new frontier by installing a 3D printer for patron use and creating its FabLab (fabulous laboratory) makerspace.  “It’s not about a 3D printer,” FFL Director Sue Considine says emphatically. “It’s about providing access to the process of making; it’s the idea of moving toward a read/write culture where people are creating culture rather than just consuming it.” The emphasis is on the community of people sharing and making with each other, rather than on the technology, though the breakthroughs in new technologies elevate the making to an enticing and challenging level.

For those who fear the mess and the moil of an active space where people are making things and learning and sharing, just think of the children’s section in almost any typical public library. It doesn’t seem at all radical to watch youngsters and teens cutting, pasting, sculpting, computer-designing, video-making, and generally finding ways to incorporate making into their learning. Why not extend the making environment to adults in the library?

The early adopters are leading the way and demonstrating the possibilities.

  • FFL was able to locate its FabLab in a previously unused space, which was formerly (and appropriately) part of the Stickley Furniture factory, renowned makers in the Arts and Crafts movement.
  • The Allen County (IN) Public Library partnered with local nonprofit Techventure, which parked its 50-foot mobile classroom makerspace in the library parking lot.
  • The Westport (CT) Public Library chose to plunk its makerspace right down in the middle of the library.

How does 3D printing actually work?

The basic definition is that 3D printing is an additive process, where an object is created by laying down successive layers of material. For a familiar frame of reference, the How Stuff Works explanation of “direct” 3D printing likens it to a 2D printer that uses inkjet technology: the nozzles “move back and forth dispensing a fluid” on a surface. Unlike 2D printing, the nozzles also move up and down to build up layers of material, and the nozzle is spewing plastic polymers or waxes rather than ink. The direct printing method is the common technique for the lower-priced personal printers.

It sounds straightforward enough but the subject can get quite technical in a hurry. The Wikipedia entry includes a table of 11 different technologies (and an acronym for each), explaining that the “main differences are in the way layers are built to create parts, and the materials that can be used.” Materials cover a wide spectrum from various plastics to metal or ceramic powders, liquid resin, metal wire, foil, plaster, food substances and more.

For this learning curve, videos convey the concept better than text. Here are a few that bring the concept to life:

  • Planetary Gears On A Printrbot 3D Printer (49 sec)
    Very short time-lapse filming of printing a set of plastic gears, which are then assembled into a working model.
  • The Big 3D Print (3 min)
    A 3-minute video of a 3D print job that took two days to complete in real time.
  • Printrbot printing in realtime (14 min)
    This longer video demonstrates the real-time slow pace of the printing process, not unlike watching paint dry.
  • 3D Metal Printing (5 min)
    A more industrial printing process using stainless steel powder; not likely to be on your desktop any time soon.

An even greater leap into the sci-fi future involves bio-printing with human cells, “really just a modified inkjet printer,” says Gokey lightly. Seriously, the field of regenerative medicine is researching the potential for 3D printers that use living cells to “print” tissues and whole organs. In this eye-opening TED talk, surgeon Anthony Atala tells and shows how it works and how it may someday “solve the organ-donor problem.” Mark Ganter, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Washington, marvels, "It's astounding that you can print out a 3-D object and literally breathe life into it with cells that are essentially computer firmware."

Probably the best way to grasp the reality of how the personal level of 3D printing works is to find the makerspace nearest you and go try if for yourself. Adventure in 3D Printland is this author’s foray into the expanding universe of replication.

This only scratches the surface of the paradigm-shifting potential of 3D printers and makerspaces. For more information, check out these resources:

  • 3D printing: a collection of links to information about 3D printing, assembled by the Maker Librarian, an Ontario librarian who has been involved in maker culture since 2009
  • 3D Printing Resources: articles and videos from Explaining the Future, “a future shaper’s toolbox” by Christopher Barnatt of Nottingham University Business School
  • Learn About Makerspaces from the Innovators: the ALA TechSource 4-session webinar series, each focused on a different library makerspace (find the archive of the first webinar and a link to register for the 3 remaining)
  • Made in a Library: webinar archive from the OCLC/LJ innovation series featuring the FabLab at Fayetteville Free Library
  • Rapid Prototyping Glossary: probably more 3D printing terminology than you’ll ever need