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How to Start a 3D Printing Program at Your Library
Posted On May 5, 2015
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Northeastern’s Digital Media Commons features studios that correspond with academic departments—for music recording, video production, animation, and CAD (computer-aided design), etc. Adding a 3D printing studio there was a natural fit. “[W]e really liked the idea of a studio, because it suggests it’s a place you can come and work with engineers in the sort of studio sense … and experiment and try things. So it’s a public space in the library, and that was important for us. We wanted to have glass walls, so even at night when there’s no one in the space working, you can still see the printers chugging along.” Anyone walking by can look in and, hopefully, stop to see what they’re all about, says Yott.

Recruit Some Help

“[T]here has to be someone on your staff I think who’s willing to support it and willing to take apart hardware,” says Miller. The printer needs routine maintenance, so a high school student (who had been using the printer often) volunteers for 2 hours on Mondays. He cleans the area, reloads the filament, and does other checkups on the machine. He even hosts 3D printing classes for patrons. Miller will fix the printer if the student alerts him to any problems. Having a volunteer frees Miller’s time up immensely, he says. “And it also helps my staff—a lot of them know how to do it, but they’re still a little nervous about it. … And I think most places you will easily be able to find that kind of high school kid who is into this kind of stuff, and even if they don’t know, they’re willing to learn. They’re going to love having the opportunity to work with a 3D printer.”

Kountouzi is the only professional library staffer running the 3D printing program, but she has a library student intern who works 15 hours a week and other student workers who help out.

Yott stresses the importance of hiring people who have experience with 3D printing. Northeastern brought in two engineers and a digital artist to work with Yott in developing the program, creating the space, and putting together the initial programming for it. Mark Sivak, the library’s community liaison (who has an engineering Ph.D.), became the assistant academic specialist and managing director of the studio. He works with faculty members to develop courses that can be built around the 3D printers. “And then we built a student workforce of work-study students and actually a lot of volunteers, who serve to help students determine why models fail, help them optimize their 3D models, or … to actually help them design a part,” says Yott. “If you have a librarian who happens to be an engineer or an artist, fine, but you can’t just let it sit in the corner and pretend it’s going to find its relevance. Have someone who’s really versed in the technology and its applications, especially for the first couple years.”

Draft a Policy

Penn Libraries Biomedical Library doesn’t let patrons use the printer themselves. They email the library their 3D design files; Kountouzi and her staff check them, put them in the printer software, and print the items out; and patrons pick up the printed items. “We reserve the right to prioritize projects, based on the needs, classes, etc. And it’s also just one printer, and there are a lot of things that can go wrong, so we just need to have control,” she says. The library’s policy is detailed on its website.

Northeastern also explains its 3D printing program on its website. The library offers workshops on how to use the printers. Anyone can use the studio to print designs—experienced users can go right into the space and start working, but “there are a lot of students who really have conceptual ideas for models in CAD, but they need work. So it may take 3 or 4 hours of one of the work-study students to get a project to a point where it can be printed. And that’s where I think the real value-add is, that we offer at the university, as opposed to just putting up a printer,” says Yott.

At Sauk City, the 3D printer gets the most use from boys age 8–15. Miller says about 10% of his patrons have actually used the printer, but 75% are interested in learning about it and want to watch it in action. He says that although one of the library’s philosophies is to give people access to new technologies before they decide to buy them, 3D printers don’t necessarily fall into that category. It’s more likely that patrons are just curious to see how a 3D printer works. “They’re always so amazed that it’s almost exactly like a dot matrix printer. … That’s probably the comment I get the most is, ‘It’s just a dot matrix printer using plastic instead of ink,’” says Miller.

Decide Whether to Charge

Northeastern charges only for the materials used on the 3D printers, with prices dependent on the device and the volume of material used, “so that we have a small pile of money to use for equipment replacement or buying new equipment as it becomes available,” says Yott. “Don’t be afraid to charge. Students get that there are charges associated with these things.” Students can print up to 2 cubic centimeters of material for about $10.

Kountouzi’s library began charging for 3D printing in April 2015. Prints for academic research and clinical purposes will remain free, but any personal uses of the printer will be subject to a low fee. (Before she prints an object, Kountouzi will tell the patron the total and provide an estimated time for completion if possible.) The fee is “basically just to deter people from printing anything,” she says.

Sauk City doesn’t charge for the use of its 3D printer or put a cap on how much one person can print. From 2012 to 2014, the library had about 600 hours of active printing time, says Miller, which only amounted to about $200 worth of plastic. As long as no one abuses the privilege of using the machine to create items for sale, “hobbyists and people genuinely interested in 3D printing” can continue to use it for free. “We pride ourselves on being a free resource and figured because we’re supported by taxes that people already paid the bill to use the library. We don’t want to make them pay anything else,” he says.

Be Prepared for Anything

“It’s mind-blowing how popular, how vital the [3D printing] center has become,” says Yott. “We now have students who actually volunteer, who don’t have work-study money, who will say, ‘Well, I’ll volunteer to work 10 hours because it’s important for my career that I can put on my resume that I worked across this range of 3D technologies.’ … For the academic library, it makes the library more relevant to that academic mission.”

“It’s still really the Wild West of technology where you’re on your own,” says Miller. 3D printer vendors “might send you parts, but unless you live in a larger area, you’re not going to get a lot of support. … You can’t just buy it and set it there and expect people to use it. It’s going to have to be maintained, and you have to train your patrons on it, which actually takes a long time to do.”

“My whole job is changing by the day, and what I do, but it’s a lot of fun,” says Kountouzi. “It’s not going to be something you add and you can run it on the side. … I have to deal with all kinds of policies that I had not anticipated before, and processes … so it’s a lot more operations-oriented, which is something I personally like, but it’s not for everyone.”

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Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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