Add Another Dimension to Your Library with 3D Printing

Posted by Susan M. Brackney, Lindsey Hill

Libraries have long connected their communities to the most modern, digital tools—think Apple computers, high quality digital copiers, and early Internet access. Often, they did so long before individuals could afford these technologies for themselves.

These days, 3D printers are the latest disruptive technology, and many libraries already have them up and running. If you’ve been curious about adding 3D printing to your library, here’s a look at some of the potential benefits, costs, and caveats.


Unexpected Benefits

Since Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbrook, Illinois incorporated a 3D printer into Studio 300, its digital media creation center, kids are watching their 2D creations come to life—and new, highly engaged patrons of all ages are streaming in.

“Many of our patrons signed up for library cards for the very first time—it seemed they wanted to gain access to Studio 300 and the 3D printer. Anyone interested in the studio goes through an orientation first, and these patrons signed up for that orientation within two weeks of getting their new library cards. Of course, we hope they’ll catch on to visiting other areas of the library, too, but this is a good start,” Studio 300 Manager Jeffrey Fisher said.

Providing access to a safe space with 3D printing capabilities has enabled kids to connect with peers and, in some cases, come out of their shells a bit, too. From leading workshops to creating webcasts as the “experts,” kids are taking learning to a new level with this simple tool.

Shannon McClintock Miller, a teacher librarian from Van Meter School in Van Meter, Iowa, added a Makerbot printer to her school library, and a sophomore named Luke really stepped up to help out. Although he had previously struggled to find his voice amongst his peers, his interest in how 3D printing worked and his motivation to share new knowledge with his classmates helped him to discover his true voice. (See video above.)

bandingtogether1Banding Together is just one of the 3D printing projects Van Meter students have worked on. Students connected with other kids by designing charms to “bring happiness, hope, and change to the world.” The students collaborated on charm designs with Andy Plemmons, a teacher librarian from Barrow Elementary in Athens, Georgia.


A Different Kind of Patron

Serving Westport, Connecticut and many surrounding towns, Westport Public Library (WPL) is about the tenth busiest library in New England, with between 1,200 and 1,400 patrons visiting the library each day. WPL has a robust MakerSpace, complete with five—five!—3D printers.

According to Bill Derry, the library’s assistant director for innovation and user experience, it started simply enough. “We’ve had our first printer for over two years. We got it after a successful Maker Faire that we coproduced with a community organization. When we finished that Maker Faire, the community said, ‘OK. So now what are you going to do?’ And that’s when we started a MakerSpace right in the center of the library,” he explained.

After having their MakerSpace in place for just over a year, the library was awarded an IMLS grant of $250,000. As a result, they were able to purchase additional 3D printers, a 3D digitizer, have monthly “Makers-in-Residence,” and pay for part-time MakerSpace staff.

These days, four of their 3D printers are in constant use. The fifth is a much more expensive—in the neighborhood of $20,000—high-level machine. “That’s used for prototyping. That’s the one we charge for. The rest are free. Anyone can be trained who is a Westport resident for free, and, if you’re a non-resident, there is a $10-per-hour fee for the two-hour training,” Derry said.

Once patrons have been trained, they may use a 3D printer for up to two hours a week.

Since adding the MakerSpace and 3D printers, “We have many more young people coming to the library, as well as people who are inventors who didn’t really think of the library as the place to come. We’re getting a new group in. We think we’re moving more toward supporting our entrepreneurs and new job skills. That’s the direction the MakerSpace is taking us in,” he continued.

But 3D printing isn’t just for kids. Derry estimates that about 20% of the 3D printers’ users are adults, including artists, designers, and prototype makers: “We try to use those higher-level users as models of where we want people to try to move towards. Because designing is what this is about.”


Cost and Functionality

Of course, there are some caveats to consider. For one, 3D printers widely range in price, from about $400 to well over $3,000. And, Derry noted, it’s best to have more than just one printer hand.

“You’re going to need a couple, in order to give people chances to use them. [3D printers] are kind of slow, and the better quality you pick, the slower they are. If you want the print quality to be fine, you have to pay for that in time,” he said.

WPL patrons typically can complete their print jobs within their allotted two-hour timeslots, but sometimes they have to rethink their projects, because two hours wouldn’t have been enough time to print.

You’ll also need to take 3D printing materials cost into account. “The material is not that expensive, relatively speaking, for these MakerBot printers. It’s pennies per print usually, but our expensive printer is very different. The plastic costs quite a bit, so we do charge $10 per cubic inch on that big, good quality printer,” Derry said.

Incidentally, the Makerbot seems to be one of the most popular 3D printers among libraries. Not sure where to start? Here’s a closer look at 16 3D printers, including their average prices, printer features, material types accepted, and much more.

When choosing a 3D printer for your library, print quality, printer speed, and the relative size of the objects your patrons will want to print are just a few things you’ll need to think carefully about. Here are some of the more popular 3D printers, but, keep in mind, one size does not fit all.


Training and Staffing

Cost is one thing, but the addition of 3D printing technology also requires the willingness of a facilitator to learn about the tool for optimal use: maintenance, troubleshooting, and communicating ways to use the equipment. That can be a big commitment.

But, that person doesn’t necessarily have to be an adult on staff. WPL has a whopping 25 volunteers who actually lead all of the public training sessions. A few of those volunteers are adults, and the remainder range in age between eight and 16.

Ideally, you will need at least one staff member who will be able to “own” your 3D printing initiatives and who can manage any associated volunteers to make the program work. Your teen programming staff is often a good place to start.


Not for You?

If your library simply can’t justify the cost, you don’t have the staff, or there just isn’t enough interest in your area, “3D printing might not be the place to start,” Derry said. Actually, there are lots of MakerSpace activities—like robotics and computer coding—that might be worth exploring instead. (You can visit WPL’s MakerSpace blog for a few ideas.)

Still, there’s no denying the appeal of a truly disruptive technology like 3D printing. “The reason 3D printing has been so successful for us is because it’s going to change the way we live, work, and play,” Derry said. “I think, when you start playing with disruptive technologies, you excite the imagination. [A 3D printer] just happens to be an imagination box that excites and motivates people.”

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