Thursday, November 20, 2014

3D Printers!

The 3D printer makes a little cat.  You can just see its feet
and tail on the screen near the bottom of the image.
 Jasper and many of his friends are super excited about 3D printers!  A while ago the Lake Oswego library became the first public library in Oregon to make 3D printing available to library patrons. Details on their availability are here:  We learned that Hillsboro Library is doing the same and went to a presentation to learn more. The purchase of the printers was raised through the efforts of the  Hillsboro Library Friends, clear evidence that all those books people donate to library book sales do make a difference!  They advised that Multnomah County is working on a similar project and hoping to bring 3D printing to the Rockwood branch.  And I've read that Ft. Vancouver Regional Library District is also considering 3D printers.  So wherever you are in the greater Portland area, 3D printing may be heading your way soon!

Hillsboro's program is not expected to start until January 2015.  They have purchased two Up! Mini 3D printers.  They are limited to printing objects within a 4.5" cubic area, which should work well, since anything larger could potentially take far too long to print than is practical for a shared printer.  Guidelines for use are not finalized yet.  So far, they are anticipating that patrons will be allowed to print a maximum of once a week and will not be charged for the service. The plastic itself is inexpensive, so if they do charge a fee in the future it will likely be minimal. Meeting with a trained staffperson to confirm that a proposed design will fit their capabilities will likely be a required prerequisite.  Patrons won't be able to watch their pieces being printed then and there, but will need to come back later to pick them up.
Jasper checks out a table of neato 3D printed objects.

This 3D printer, like most commercial models, prints objects in only one solid color.  However, objects made with ABS plastic are easy to paint. ABS plastic is most likely the material they will have available, but they will be testing to see if PLA plastic will work as well.  PLA plastic is has different tactile and visual qualities, is more rigid than ABS, and is considered more earth-friendly. It is made from plants instead of petroleum (although some sources of PLA are apparently made from GMOs) and will biodegrade if composted by a commercial composter. There are also special 3D printers that can print in such materials as ceramic, metal and even chocolate, or in multiple colors of plastic for the same object. NASA is actually working with a private company to see if food can be printed on the International Space Station!  Some companies that own fancy 3D printers will accept custom orders and will mail your object to you when completed.

If you'd like to try out the 3D printer, the first step would be to find or create something to print.  The website Thingiverse has become a popular place for 3D printer enthusiasts to share copyright free designs, so you could simply find one you like there.  If you'd rather create your own design, Tinkercad offers free online software and user-friendly tutorials. Hillsboro Library plans on eventually offering free CAD (computer aided design) classes to familiarize people with the process. They hope that this will be a first step in creating a community makerspace. How cool is that?

Busy printing another kitty!
Should you buy your own home 3D printer?  It doesn't sound like a great idea to me... yet.  My feeling is that this technology is bound to take the trajectory of many technologies as demand increases.  The heat will be on manufacturers to market future models that are more sophisticated and user friendly even as the price drops. This is why it makes perfect sense for 3D printers to be available as community resources beginning now, when it's not yet practical for most of us to purchase them for ourselves. Hillsboro Library staff advised that although they purchased two printers, they anticipate that they may only use one at a time, because they have a steep learning curve and frequently break down. They described owning a 3D printer as an experience quite unlike owning a home inkjet printer, which should work right out of the box, and more like a "tinkerer's hobby".   They might find it necessary to keep their second printer as a backup or a source for quickly replacing delicate parts that can break, since it takes a while to receive replacement parts.

Do most of us really need 3D printing?  Heck no!  But does it matter?  I doubt it.  Think about the many thousands of things we use nearly every day, that we just can't seem to live without, that we lived perfectly well without when we were growing up.  I'm betting it's not just a passing fad, but that 3D printing is here to stay.

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