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Adventures in 3D Printing

July 9, 2015
Micro3D printer, with spool holder, owl, and intricate box

There have been a few posts in this space already about 3D printing and the MakerSpace concept.  I mentioned in The Library of Now that our campus has a strong science focus, and as such, I have felt the need to delve more deeply into understanding the nuances of certain technologies.

Our first 3D printer, a Micro3D by PrintM3D arrived two weeks ago. Originally funded as a Kickstarter campaign, it is billed as the “first truly consumer 3D printer.”  Visually, it is beautiful in the style of most Apple products: streamlined, bright (ours is blue), compact, quiet.  At a list price of $349, the Micro3D is within reach for many people. It seems like the perfect gateway device.

I don’t intend to write an advertisement for the Micro3D.  Rather, I want to discuss some of the challenges we have encountered using it.  An Engineering instructor on our campus, experienced with 3D printing, told us it takes about a month to figure out the quirks of any printer, and I would have to agree.  Since neither I nor my colleague had experience with 3D printers, it has been a steep learning curve. The Micro3D has what seems like a convenient compartment underneath its print bed for loading spools of 3D printer filament, not unlike traditional sewing machines load bobbins. However, we never successfully managed to thread the plastic filament correctly in this way.  The “external” load option, which involves a much simpler process of inserting filament into the print head from the top, worked much better for us. Therefore, our first practical 3D printed item (we printed a cute owl first) was a bracket that someone else had designed specifically for hanging a spool of filament on the outside of the Micro3D.  We also successfully created an intricate box from a design we found online, to hold some of our smaller loan items.

The printer is currently running with a laptop on our circulation desk and has garnered a lot of attention (some printers require a computer USB connection, others operate entirely independently).  One of the most commonly asked questions is “Where do you get the designs?”  The most common and well-known repository for 3-dimensional design files is Thingiverse, although using Google can also yield relevant results.   A number of free, online tools exist to create your own designs.  I prefer TinkerCad, which is like an extremely simplified version of AutoCad.  Tinkercad is free to use, and allows for import of existing objects for modification.  Others have recommended SolidWorks, although I have not tried to use it yet.

The fine nuances of 3D printing are many, and we are keeping a log of what has succeeded and what has not.  We printed the box at the lowest resolution and settings, and it still took over eight hours to print (the software predicted 5).  That said, it is the most structurally sound piece we have created.  Some two piece designs did not fit together as promised.  Some designs need “rafts,” or bases, and others do not.  Some work better printing vertically and some horizontally.  Items may stick to the print bed – a friend loaned us a bottle of Aquanet, which when sprayed on the bed, is an excellent lubricant.  Right now, it is trial and error.  I find myself frustrated by what I do not know about design, mechanics, and engineering. My list of things I want to create is long, but I currently lack the skills to adapt or create designs correctly for my own use.

As we have taken advantage of the quiet summer to get to know our printer, we have started to think about how we might present it to the public as a service.  This is nothing special or new, a number of libraries have developed policies and procedures for 3D printing and worked out schedules and pricing. For now, we will offer any 3D printing in the library free-of-charge. The filament is inexpensive, and anything that would use a significant amount of it would take days to print.

In my attempt to develop language for some sort of policy for our 3D printing, I read the American Library Association’s “Tip Sheet” Progress in the Making: An Introduction to 3D Printing and Public Policy (2014).  It is a document that I do not find useful and am curious to hear other peoples’ reactions. Two pages are devoted to copyright, trademark infringement, and licensing.  There is the usual mention of the ease with which people could 3D print a gun or a sex toy.  While it is always useful to consider copyright and licensing, the alarmist nature of this conversation saps away any enthusiasm I might have as a user to borrow another person’s freely-available design and modify it for my own use.

When addressing the role of libraries as 3D printing increases in popularity, the document states, “Given the many policy questions 3D printing gives rise to, libraries will need to do more than provide their patrons with instruction in the basics of printer mechanics and CAD modeling and scanning.”  I am a pretty technology-savvy person, but the complexities of modeling something in 3D rather than 2D is something that is not coming easy to me.  Even in a program as simple as TinkerCad, the concept of objects resting on different planes, negative space versus positive space, and dimensions are all requiring me to use new parts of my brain.  Is this ALA document an attempt to calm or appease librarians who do not feel competent with technology that they won’t really have to learn it, that the most useful thing they can really do for their patrons is to write policies and follow them around lecturing about risks?

On the last page are three tips for library professionals, and this section is perhaps the most frustrating to me.  The first thing a librarian should do, apparently, is to familiarize ourselves with the basics of patent and trade dress law? Second, we should develop a policy addressing legal risks, while still encouraging people to have fun! To me, this is like encouraging children to play outside in the summer, but not before warning about ticks, ample application of bug spray and SPF50 sunscreen, and insisting on dressing in long sleeves, socks, and shoes. But go have fun!

I cannot claim to be an expert on 3D printing. I have used one (although I hope to build my own and use more this fall).  But I have observed other libraries purchase 3D printers and employ the technology.  My tip sheet would focus first on the logistics and on the technology.  What are the different kinds of plastics? Which printers are the fastest?  What types of objects will print well at a low-resolution? How can I create my own design? How can I modify another person’s design? What do I need to know about Creative Commons and licensing of designs?  What do I do if an object sticks to the print bed? How can 3D printers be used in education? In 2014, Educause released Making It Real, 3D-Printing as a Library Service. This, to me, is a much more complete and useful analysis than the ALA Tip Sheet, and provides some data and a case study about one academic library’s successful 3D printing program.

The ALA Tip Sheet does make a third recommendation: “Communicate with other libraries offering 3D printing services. Share your user policy and discuss emerging applications of your 3D printer(s) with others in the field.”  And so I am.

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