FAQs: 3D printers in the library

I am regularly asked about 3d printers and makerspaces in libraries, enough that I think it might be useful to collect all the information I have in one place. So, here are the answers I’ve given to the buckets of questions I’ve received, all based on my own experience, and the information garnered from my research on library makerspaces:

Which printer?
I LOVE my Printrbot Jr v2. It’s easy to build–and BUILD IT even if you know nothing about electronics or machinery, because otherwise it will be hard to fix–and easy to use, with excellent prints. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Cost is $599 for a kit.

DON’T buy the Makerbot, in my opinion. For a variety of reasons, including, most importantly:
1. It’s no better than the printrbots really, and you could buy 3 printrbot jr machines for far less than the cost of 1 makerbot and always (presumably) have one working. Makerbot print quality doesn’t look much better, and it breaks just as often, from what I’ve been told.
2. Makerbot is sort of the evil empire of 3D printing. They took opensource hardware, which has an ethical code to return any innovations to the opensource community, and closed it, sold out to a huge patent-hogging company, made money. This is not playing nicely with others. And open-source fits better with the library ethos of access. Of course, this is my opinion, and you can do as you wish!
4. It IS very easy to use. Just not that much easier than other printers.

So, I ‘ve hear that any of these opensource machines (get kits when possible) are also good:
Bukobot or Bukibot
Printrbot Simple. or Plus

or these pricier, sometimes closed source, models:
Type A Machines series 1
LulzBot TAZ (awesome–I want one!)
Felix 2.0
Ditto+

How do you use the 3d printer?
We use it similarly to our copier/printer–it’s openly available for anyone to use, as long as they have been trained in its use. We also had programs to teach people to use the printer.

How do you train people to use it?
Learn one, do one, teach one. This is a traditional training method. I was working on a sort of badge-card when I left the library, in which people who had a permission/liability release form signed got a card. Then when they were trained, they would get a sticker; when they made something with a piece of equipment, they get a sticker; when they taught someone else to safely use the equipment, they get their final sticker. At that point, they’d be free to use that equipment more or less unsupervised–OBVIOUSLY subject to the best judgement of the library staff (I’ll post on “dangerous” tech such as soldering irons soon). I am not sure if that card system was implemented, but it should work fine. (We were just posting notes on the permission form and in the patron’s computer record, which was tedious.)

What were the policies around using the 3d printer?
Anyone who was trained as above was free to use it. I started to require people to allow me to be the one to change filament or fix jams, because sometimes, even with training, people didn’t really know what they were doing. It was a first-come, first-served service. You had to wait with the printer while the print was ongoing. I spoke with several librarians in my research on what they’d “allow” to be printed. Here’s a quote from my article (in review):

A librarian with a long-running makerspace noted a strong material connection between 3D printing technology and intellectual freedom. He said that one of the early users of his library’s 3D printer built a model of a grenade, leaving him to wonder, “Do I need to write a policy saying they can’t make certain kinds of things?” He decided that the answer was emphatically “No,” and that intellectual freedom means the freedom to create anything. If users were comfortable sitting next to the printer for the six hours required to print a sex toy, he was not going to stop them.

I believe this is absolutely the correct stance to take. Anyone censoring what is created better be ready for a intellectual freedom challenge!

What did you charge for printing?
Nothing.We also didn’t charge for paper printing. We asked people to donate, and came out more than even that way.

What did it cost to run?
Not much. A 2 kg spool of filament costs around $35 and lasted us 4 months or so. It’s not a big cost. The thing to keep in mind is that print times are long, so even with the printer being used a lot, only so much filament can be used per minute. It won’t break your bank.

Where do you put it?
A printrbot jr only takes up about 24 square inches of space. We put ours on the front counter at first, to capture people’s attention as they were checking out materials. Then we put it on a table in the computer lab area. Be aware that the extruder gets hot. If you are concerned about someone touching it, put it where they can’t–but they’d have to actively try to burn themselves, as the printrbot has an insulated sleeve mostly covering the hot parts. We never had a problem; I’ve never been burned even when working on the hot-end. Still, in the interest of not getting sued, you may choose to place it in a safe location. Just make sure it’s visible, because crowds of people will want to watch it.

What about small libraries? Is a 3d printer a big draw?
My community was pop. 2340. It was not the AMAZING draw I’d hoped, but was very, very good. Too many people in that town didn’t know what a 3D printer was to get excited about one. However, when they came in and saw all the stuff we had, then they were intrigued.

Will the 3d printer be “abused” by kids wanting to print toys?
I had kids printing iphone cases and animals over and over, but I didn’t see it as abuse, I saw it as them doing what the stuff was there to do.

Does having a 3d printer take a lot of staff time? Time to print? Lot of maintenance?
It will take a lot of time. Sometimes. These are not consumer electronics yet. They break and there are no repair people. You are the repair person. I recommend buying a kit and making the printer. Even a complete electronics idiot can do this, I know, because I did it. I highly recommend the Printrbot Jr. I have my own, and that’s what I bought for the library. Excellent machine, easy to fix once you’ve built it. If you leave the printer out for anyone to use, you will find that some yahoos tinker with it, unscrewing things, or messing with the filament. If I were you, I’d make up a rule saying hands off. Let the librarians change filament, etc.–which very rarely needs to be done. Then, if you see someone has the expertise to take care of it, make an exception for them, consider them a printer pro or whatever.

Print times are lengthy. To print an iphone case can take an hour or so. Make people stay by the printer for the whole print, not just leave and pick it up later. You’re not a Kinkos, and people need to do the job themselves (in my opinion, and that of several others I’ve spoken to).

Anyway, I was only a librarian 15-25 hours a week because I’m working on my PhD full time, and was the only person to really deal with the printer. I had no problems keeping up. Some days I told people the printer was not available because I needed to clear a jam or something (which has never happened with my own v2 printrbot, by the way, only with the library’s v1)

Do you have one computer hooked up to the 3d printer? Is it wireless?
We had one computer hooked up, but were working on getting it hooked to a Raspberry Pi computer ($40) and running it over the web via Octoprint. I still haven’t done this for my own computer because I’ve gotten so good as using the Repetier/Slicer programs and hate to relearn everything. But if I were you, I’d go straight to the Raspberry Pi/Octoprint setup. Then anyone can log onto the Octoprint site online, and send their print job to your Pi’s IP address. Easy.

Do you need a program to design what you’re going to print?
I use Openscad. Also have available Sketchup and 123D Catch, and Blender. Openscad is a pain to learn, so find some kid to teach you how to use it and spend some time playing.

Do you need to be tech savvy or know about this stuff beforehand?
No. I knew nothing, and learned along the way. Just be OK with confusion and the scientific method. Write everything you try down. I built my printer, have fixed printers, and had absolutely NO machinery skills beforehand. It’s really not hard. But then my personality is comfortable with learning by doing, and is used to befuddlement. You may be different. Try connecting with your local makers–even if you think there are none around. Check Maker Meetup or any local robotics clubs, hardware stores or Radio Shack. They will often help you out. One of the library’s best teachers was 11 years old.

Where do you get filament?
I get my filament on ebay–cheap! Check this list for further suppliers, but don’t buy too much in advance–I think filament can “go bad” though I haven’t seen it happen.

What about the emissions of the melted filament?
See this post for more on this issue.

Do we really need to get one of these things?
No. And perhaps you should not. I am pretty critical of over-technologizing making, and focusing only on the “sexy” hightech stuff. Start a knitting club if that’s what your local makers want. But that said, it’s a pretty inexpensive and cool way to signal that the library is (and always has been) a tech-savvy place. For whatever it’s worth, I can pretty much guarantee that some sort of creative tools and space fits within your library’s mission (from my intensive research on mission statements.) And some people who have never come to your library before will come if you get one.

Any further questions? Check out my other FAQs, email me, or comment here. I also do workshops on all these tools and makerspaces in general, for libraries, systems, or classrooms.

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