Every so often a new technology comes along that changes everyday life. When that happens it’s said to be a ”disruptive technology”. One recent example is Sir Tim Berners Lee’s little invention, which you may have heard of, the world wide web? Disruptive technology doesn’t have to be digital though. In fact, a centuries old invention not only changed society but was a boon for libraries. When Johan Gutenberg perfected the printing press, it made it easier to mass produce books. Now, we find ourselves on the cusp of another disruptive technology where libraries are in a prime position to benefit: 3D printing.
Thanks to the Friends of the Library, we were recently able to purchase a 3D printer. We settled on 3D Systems Cube 3 model. The printer is open so that you can see the process in action. Speaking of that process, here’s how it works. First an object is “drawn” in a type of software called Computer Aided Design (or CAD). That object is then saved as an .stl file, which stands for stereolitheography. That format was created by Chuck Hull way back in 1983. (The next thing Mr. Hull did was found a little company called 3D Systems.) Once the object is in the .stl format, we open the file in the software that comes with the Cube. There we can make any adjustments, such as scaling the file down if it’s too large. Once the adjustments are done, we save the file in the cube format to a USB drive. From there we plug the USB drive into the printer, go through a couple of menus on the printer, and kick off the print job.
The printer uses polylactic acid, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s just a type of plastic. The plastic is laid down layer upon layer. Each layer is 0.008 inches thick. The larger the object the longer it takes. We printed a small frog in 46 minutes. A large jack o’ lantern took 7 hours.
Due to the fact that the Cube 3 hadn’t shipped yet, we arranged to get a loaner to give a demo back on October 1st. We hope to have our printer in time for the demo planned for December 1st. But during that demo we realized that we’ve got the easy part of this disruptive technology. We didn’t create the files we printed. We took them from a website called thingiverse.com. Creating those .stl files is where the creativity comes in to play. From functional objects such as cabinet brackets or creative objects such as holiday decorations, the objects that can be created vary. Larger printers are even being used to create personalized prosthetics. So instead of a leg being mass produced and an amputee having to fit into that, 3D printers can design a leg to fit the amputee.
While our printer isn’t large enough to handle a job like that, we hope to act as the training ground for future designers. By having a 3D printer available to the community, an amateur designer can get the practice she needs to become a professional designer. Libraries have been a gateway to knowledge since before the original library of Alexandria. 3D printers just continue the trend that the internet and eBooks started and that’s diversifying that form of that knowledge.