Use PLA in your printer

A new study just came out regarding air quality safety and 3D printing. To my mind, it just reinforced my choice to only use PLA instead of ABS, because of the KNOWN hazards of ABS. PLA may also be hazardous, but:

the primary individual VOC emitted from PLA filaments was lactide … albeit in relatively low quantities (p. F)


We are not aware of any relevant information regarding the inhalation toxicity of lactide, the primary individual VOC emitted from PLA filaments. (p. G)

I spoke about this issue here 2 years ago, and I still feel like a large, well-ventilated room with a PLA printer is unlikely to harm anyone–unless someone sits next to it all day everyday. Then an air filter is a good idea. But I am not a plastics scientist or health expert, so be cautious!



Azimi, P., Zhao, D., Pouzet, C., Crain, N., & Stephens, B. (2016, preprint). Emissions of ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds from commercially available desktop 3D printers with multiple filaments. Environmental science & technology.


Policy for library makerspaces

owl oopsI am regularly asked for a policy for a library’s makerspace offerings. I’ve seen many of these, and provided a brief one elsewhere on this blog. But I was thrilled to recently be offered a shot at looking over East Troy Public Library’s policy. East Troy is a small town in Wisconsin, and is part of a group of libraries offering a mobile makerspace. I’ve been consulting with them for the past couple of years.

This file is the DRAFT policy penned by the wonderful director Alison Senkevich, along with my comments and suggestions. While it is not the final, approved policy, I love the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the policy.

My main recommendation: Ensure that a comprehensive procedures book is created alongside the policy to guide specific, quantitative guidelines for staff to follow when training, and ensuring use of the materials is up to the policy’s standards. If they do that, I hope to be able to share that as well!

Let me know if you have ideas, recommendations, or amendments you’d like to propose. The makerspace model in libraries is full of promise, but without strong policy, any makerspace will probably look like the 3D printed owl on the left of the photo above–starting out well, but devolving into chaos. (Note: the cat you see in the background was responsible for this mess. We call her Pandora for a reason–she is the original curious, and destructive, cat.)

East Troy Library General Makerspace Policy_comments


FAQs: Advice on makerspaces in libraries

1. How did you determine that you wanted to offer Maker programs/space in your library?
Really, just like most people I’ve spoken with, it was just an obvious step forward for me, so it’s difficult to pinpoint how I decided to do this. The first time I heard about a 3Dprinter several years ago, I tried to get my then-boss to allow to me write a grant for it, and failed. As soon as I became a director, I started moving forward with a makerspace, first the easy steps of adding a digital media lab, then a 3D printer and other tools. I’ve always (for the last 15 years) offered maker-type programming and it wasn’t so different to add open access to tools of production for a variety of ways to create. I am a maker and had talked with many others, hosted a “maker fair,” hackathon, and tried a Maker Camp before entirely committing to full-on “makerspace” services though–it makes no sense to add stuff your community won’t want.

2. Who initiated the project and how many staff members did you have on your implementation team?
It was just me. In a tiny library in a town of fewer than 2500, it is often just one person who does everything, and in this case, I took the makerspace project on alone as the director. I did work with a local maker group somewhat, when compiling a wishlist of equipment, and they did programs for the library.

Unfortunately, since the only person who really worked with the makerspace stuff aside from me was my VERY-part-time teen library assistant, when I left a couple of months ago, no one really had a sense of what to do next. I’d taught them how to use the equipment and thought I’d done a good job of presenting the “why,” but now only the teen librarian is furthering the use of the space, I think. The new director is interested but I think it’s largely unpromoted right now until I can train her in use of the stuff.

3. Please describe the space you use for your Maker programming. If it is a dedicated space, what is it called?
We have a pop-up space, which means that the equipment is on a cart and shelves in the library, and those who are “signed off” on various tools can use them as they wish. So people will come in and use the 3d printer connected to a computer that’s in the computer lab area, or use electrical or robotics equipment or music-mixing stuff on one of the tables in the main library space, in a very small study room, or in the program room. It doesn’t really have a name, just ‘the makerspace stuff.’ we offer digital tools of all kinds, Arduino and Raspberry Pis, a Printrbot, soldering irons, electronics equipment, robotics kits, Technic legos, jewelry making supplies, knitting tools, a pasta machine, Dremel tool and other hand tools, and all kinds of other stuff. We’re working on adding a laser cutter and more advanced robotics tools, which would be shared with other libraries in a roving makermobile.

4. What types of programs do you offer?
Everything from cooking to coding to chainmail. I interpret makerspaces as “any participatory creative space that is open for the free use of all library patrons to interact with at will, irrespective of the types of workshops, tools, staffing, materials created, or location.” This means that knitting and soldering are equally welcome and supported in the makerspace. Cooking is actually the most popular program–we don’t just demo, but people of all ages come together to make food and eat it, often some type of ethnic food such as Ethiopian or Thai.

5. Is your space open to the public when you don’t have programs?
Yes, it’s open. People need to be signed off, meaning that they or their parent/guardian have signed a form saying they understand the dangers of the space and won’t sue us if they burn themselves or whatever. Then for each “dangerous” tool, they are taught how to use the item, watched as they use it, and teach someone else how to use it. Thus learn it, do it, teach it model works well for ensuring that the very limited staff doesn’t have to be on hand for every use of the tools. But we do keep a sharp eye on kids using everything to ensure nothing stupid occurs. And we often must, due to this limited staff situation, ask people to wait to learn how to use the tools until either a program is offered or another maker can teach them.

6. Do you have external partnership/sponsorships?
Yes, at least we were granted some start-up funds from Alliant Energy Foundation and the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, and are hoping for an LSTA grant. We partnered with the local Maker Meetup group at the start as well, though that partnership has waned since I left. New partnerships with other libraries, the schools, the local historical society, and senior centers were in the works when I left.

7. Any other quotes/stories/advice you’d like to share with other organizations considering making the leap?
This advice is based not just on my experience, but my interviews with librarians and patrons:

The first advice I have is theoretical.I encourage librarians to really think of what libraries are and do, what the role of the librarian actually is. I think–and nearly everyone I’ve interviewed thinks–that offering access to tools is no different from offering access to other materials. It is all about supporting people’s ability to pursue knowledge. The types of tools stems from the types of knowledge your community might want.

The second bit of advice is practical, but stems from the theoretical. Once you’ve decided to embrace access to knowledge as a goal do two things: 1. Talk to everyone outside the library to find out what they’re making or would like to make. Dismiss nothing as unlibrary-like if you think it supports your mission. If patrons want to make nail art, buy an LED light for curing nail polish; if they want to weave, buy a table loom. Find the community first, then offer the tools. 2. But be ahead of what they think to ask for, just as in collection development, where you purchase not only the bestsellers, but oddments that need to be handsold to particular patrons. So a 3D printer (or whatever) may be the best way to market library innovation and catch the attention of the patrons, even if it’s not the tool that makers actually want or need. It will be used, and often you can’t buy a marketing campaign for the $600 it costs for a Printrbot Jr. Put this printer or other cool tool on the checkout counter where people can’t miss it.

The third bit of advice, and the most important, is to consider your role. The librarian’s role is key to the success of a makerspace. If the librarian isn’t connecting people to stuff they may have never expected to find at libraries, the makerspace may not succeed.

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.

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

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.

Air quality concern with 3D printers and libraries?

Someone just brought this to my attention (Thanks so much, R!), and I think it should be considered as a factor in libraries:

3D Printers May Be As Hazardous To Your Health As Cigarettes

The somewhat hysterical tone of the Huff Post article needs some parsing. First of all, I recommend the Printrbot Jr. for a variety of reasons, including:

  1. my own familiarity with it (disclaimer: I am not shilling for this company, though if they want to give me free stuff for my recommendation and many demos to librarians, I am not so ethical that I’d turn it down. Hint, hint, Brook Drumm.)
  2. you can easily build it yourself, even if you’re completely ignorant of electronics, if you can read and use a screwdriver.
  3. a pretty helpful community forum
  4. low price–get 3 printrbot jrs. instead of 1 makerbot, for nearly the same price!
  5. open source–some guys at Makerbot used freely-shared open source hardware and software, closed it off, and made a mint off of selling their business and their product, which I consider Not Playing Nicely With Others. I won’t give them my money, and their product isn’t that much better anyway (i.e. breaks down just as much as printrbot). To be fair, read their take on open source.
  6. small footprint–takes up less than 3 sq. feet of table
  7. easy to use. fairly easy to fix.
  8. it prints PLA, the fairly non-toxic biodegradable plastic that ever-so-faintly smells of burned sugar, and is less horrible for the environment than ABS plastic.

The study cited in the Post says that PLA printers release “about 20 billion particles per minute,” which is  “similar to cooking on a gas or electric stove.”

First of all, I’m guessing most of our patrons cook on stoves, or are around such cooking, as are staff. Secondly, most of us will be placing our printers in rooms much larger than the average kitchen, with huge quantities of air circulating through. Thirdly, the printers, according to both my own experience and interviews are NOT going to be used every second of every day after the first rush. Put those facts together, and I wouldn’t be more concerned about emissions from the printer than I am about the cooking classes at the library, at least for the health of people who don’t spend 8 hours a day next to the printer.

filterBut for staff who are around constant printing, or in tiny spaces? I guess this could be an issue. Probably not, but maybe. In this case, get a HEPA filter (don’t know about this particular model, though it looks nice), and print on.

If you’re printing with ABS, get a bigger filter. I am no environmental scientist, but this issue doesn’t look like a deal-breaker to me.

EDIT: Fantastic discussion of PLA and ABS filaments here.

UPDATE: a new study!

first big problem for library makerspaces… least the first that I’ve encountered:

Stuff breaks.

And unlike your copier, computer, network, etc. there are no repair people to call. Or rather, YOU are the repair person. So when our brand-new printrbot jr. stopped moving up and down on the z-axis, I have to figure out how to fix it.

Yeah, I don’t know how to fix it. I know nothing of electronics, motors, or even the terminology to search for information on how to fix it. The forum is total chaos, with no useful subject headings or organization (as I noted on the forum, this is one reason librarians still exist).

Here is jittery, poorly filmed video of the printer carriage moving by hand, the motor spinning, the “all-drive” bolt wobbling a bit as it spins, as I tell the printer program, Repetier, to move the carriage on the z-axis:

Everything seems aligned the way it’s supposed to be. The motor is working. The x- and y-axes are fine.

Library school does not (yet) prepare one for this problem.


EDIT: the above photo shows the problem–the bolt is supposed to be trapped up inside that triangular housing. The LOVELY people on the chaotic Printrbot forum helped me! Thanks guys!

And here is the benefit of the library makerspace: when you figure out how to fix a problem you feel (or I do anyway) elated, powerful and like you have a new relationship with your stuff.