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3D Printing in the Academic Library

February 15, 2018
Caricature of the author

Building off of yesterday’s post on iteration, today we are talking about 3D printing.  Faculty in higher education and finding new and intriguing ways to use 3D printing and rapid prototyping for teaching and learning in a variety of disciplines.  What started in engineering, has moved into almost all departments and majors on campus including English.  Concepts of design thinking and using an iterative approach to projects can benefit all students and can be applied in the university environment to create experiential learning opportunities.  Even faculty in the arts have embraced 3D printing including some innovative use of clay as a print material for sculpture.

Libraries need to find the optimal role in enabling and facilitating universal access to the software, hardware, and information resources to support 3D printing.  In order to create a 3D printout, a computer model is needed first, a step often given little forethought.  These can be created in computer aided design (CAD) software, which can range greatly in cost and complexity.  Luckily there are also many free online tools for creating simple 3D models for most users.  Models can also be created through the use of a 3D scanner however any 3D scan requires quite a bit of post-processing in software to print successfully. As information specialists, librarians can start by collecting information on software, tutorials and websites for CAD, and sources for models that can be reused for free.

Hardware may be the most difficult aspect of 3D printing, because it involves money, space, and the development of staff expertise.  A best first step is to survey the environment to assess what 3D printing is already available to users paying attention to the following questions:

  1. What type of printer is available? (material it uses to print, quality, speed)
  2. How much does it cost? (free for certain users, paid by cash or budget lines)
  3. Who is allowed to use it? (only a certain major, only faculty or staff, certain times of year)

Mapping out what is available, can help with planning for remaining user needs while also helping to direct current questions to the right solution.  While the library may not be the home for 3D printing on campus, it can be the information center for all things 3D.

Once an assessment of user needs and current technology is finished, it is important to plan for the space and staff needs for 3D printing before investing in the hardware.  In the spirit of Rapid Prototyping it is not very expensive to get a low-quality printer, but even the simplest device is not low-maintenance.  Librarians and key stakeholders should identify who will have the ongoing skillset to fix the printer and to help users with failing print designs.  Access to the 3D printer can be direct by users, mediated by staff, or even submitted online. Building a supportive environment for 3D printing is an iterative process, and can benefit users and librarians working collaboratively to build the future library.

John Meier is a Science Librarian at the Physical and Mathematical Sciences Library in the Pennsylvania State University Libraries at University Park. His responsibilities include instruction, collection development, reference, and investigating methods of delivering library information and services. He the liaison librarian to the departments of Mathematics and Statistics and also the Patent and Trademark Resource Center librarian for Penn State. John holds an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh and MS in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. His current research interests lie in using innovative technology to help library users and leadership in academic libraries.

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