Few ascending technologies show more potential than 3D printing. The ability to fabricate small objects at home not only promises a new form of creative expression but also a way to perform practical around-the-house repairs. Did a knob break off your dishwasher? Make a new one!
The idea is so innovative that we gave a 3D printer, the MakerBot Replicator Mini, our CES 2014 “Best in Show” award. Yet it’d be foolish to pretend there aren’t problems. Many users find the learning curve intimidating, even small 3D printers are the size of a tower desktop, and a capable mid-size printer with intuitive design can easily exceed $1,000.
These issues are significant, but an unexpected institution is rising to the challenge: your local library. More than one hundred 3D printers can now be found in libraries across the United States, and these may be just the start of a nationwide trend.
Why the library?
The quick adoption of 3D printing by libraries will strike some as a surprise. Most people, particularly those familiar with technology, associate libraries with old-fashioned ways of thinking. I mean, they have books; doesn’t everyone use an ebook reader these days?
“A lot of us who have these technologies at home don’t think about the people who don’t.”
To find out why printers are appearing up in libraries we spoke with Brendan Lax, a librarian spearheading an initiative to bring two $600 Up! 3D printers to the Main Library in Hillsboro, Oregon. He explained that, contrary to popular belief, libraries have long been at the forefront of bringing technology to the masses.
“A lot of us who have these technologies at home don’t think about the people who don’t have that kind of access. The library was the first place many people accessed the Internet in the 90s, and quality laser printing back in the 80s.”
He has a point. Despite their reputation, libraries to this day are the only place some people have access to the Internet. They’ve also been quick to adopt advanced printing technology in the past and most have fully signed on with ebooks, as well. All three counties near Digital Trend’s home office in Portland provide electronic library access to anyone with a library card.
Bringing 3D printing to the masses
Cost is certainly a key reason why technology has become a mission for most libraries. Computers are now affordable for most, but they were well outside the budget of an average middle-class household when first introduced. Internet access was expensive, too, and remains so in many rural towns across the United States. A communal space can purchase and service expensive devices that most individuals simply can’t afford.
3D printing, still in its infancy, is a good fit for the same reasons. The Up! models bought by the Hillsboro library are some of the smallest available and were chosen by Brendan to keep initial costs low, but they’re still more expensive than an average PC – and that’s without adding in the cost of plastic used to print. The MakerBot Replicator Mini we so adore is $1,375 for the printer alone, and a starter filament pack adds another $100.
But cost is not the only barrier. 3D printers require the use of modeling software that seems extraordinarily complex to the average user. Downloading a model to print has been streamlined thanks to online databases like Thingiverse, where hobbyists can share their creations, but learning to create a model from scratch isn’t easy. Users must understand the tools of the trade and how to troubleshoot a 3D printer that jams or doesn’t print correctly.
The Hillsboro library hopes to tackle the problem with classes that will bring people, including teenagers and particularly eager children, up to speed with TinkerCAD, an online service that makes 3D models more approachable. “TinkerCAD is kind of like moving Lego around,” he mentioned. “It’s fun to mess around with it. This is a way for kids to see it for the first time.”
While the library will not be able to help everyone who walks in build a project from scratch, Brendan hopes to remove the early barriers that frustrate newcomers. “We’re not going to be able to show everyone how to create, but we’ll have volunteers that help tweak projects, and check that files they bring in are compatible,” he told us. These simple steps should push aside some of the technical points that confuse those new to the hobby.