First Steps in 3D Printing

We opened up a new 3D printing lab in my library a month or so ago. It’s nothing elaborate at this point: just two MakerBot Replicator+ printers and a computer to go along with them. But it’s a first effort in branching out into the area for us, and I’m glad we were able to do it.

The space is right outside my office, so I’ve been able to watch people come in and out to use the printers. (Access is for university-related people only, so no public 3D printing just yet.) To be able to use the printer, people just need to take a brief 15 minute class that goes over the basics, like what not to touch, how to start a job, how to stop a job, what to do when things go wrong, and basic etiquette for the area. Once they’ve got that done, we put a note on their library card, and they can check in with us to have us go unlock the room for them. Printing is free, for the time being.

It’s been a lot of fun to watch people’s reactions to the area. Some have come by and just been disappointed that the room is no longer an open study room. (A reaction I can certainly understand, as study rooms are often at a premium at my campus. Though in my defense, I just opened a new study room on the second floor, so the space ended up being study room neutral . . .) Some stare in confusion at the boxy printers, wondering what they are. (For this reason, I’m trying to always have something printing in there. It’s much easier to tell what the things do when you see them in action.)

Some people recognize the 3D printers and are very excited. I had one student talking on the phone outside my office, gushing about how awesome this was. (This made me very happy, of course.)

But my favorite reactions are the ones of the people who come and take the class and then start actually printing things. When 3D printing first popped up on my radar, it was generally as a “gee whiz” sort of technology. Something that was cool, but which I didn’t know if it would ever really be useful or not. But as I’ve used it more and more since then, I’ve come to appreciate just what a game changer it can be. The ability to think of an idea and then turn that idea into a tangible object, without any real need of tons of experience, is pretty incredible.

I’ll compare it to drawing on my iPad. I have an Apple Pencil now, and I bought a cool drawing app that I’ve loved to use in what spare time I have. I like to doodle, but I’m always messing up when I draw. I’ll have a line go astray, or get something wrong along the way. Yes, I could always erase before, but there’s a limit to how much of that you can do before the paper begins to disintegrate. Drawing electronically lets me get just the right light. It lets me do exactly what I want, and if I don’t like it, I can undo it.

3D printing brings that some concept to the real world. Better yet, you can see something someone else made, and then print it and have it for your own. Right now a faculty member is printing a small printing press that she’s going to use to print tiny manuscripts. Talk about meta.

So it’s been a fun experiment, and I really hope it continues to blossom. It’s bringing something to the area that is quite cutting edge for western Maine. Yes, it’s more common elsewhere, but I only know of two other places that do 3D printing within 30 minutes in any direction. If we can add etching and engraving and other technologies in the future . . .

That would be great.


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