3D: A Status Report

Printing technology comes of age

September 1, 2017

Dispatches, by Jason Griffey

At this point in its technological trajectory, 3D printing has reached what I would consider the zenith of its hype cycle. Average library users know about it and, while they might not have tried it, they are aware of the technology and have some idea of how it works. This doesn’t mean 3D printers are no longer cutting edge or that all libraries have them, but we’re clearly beginning to flatten out the demand curve.

One thing that has helped the 3D printing business take off is the availability of freely shareable models for just about anything. The most popular online library of 3D models is Thingiverse, a free resource owned by MakerBot Industries. Thingiverse allows anyone who has created a model to upload it to the website and make it available for users to download. In effect, these are open access 3D objects. It’s the perfect first stop for libraries with 3D printers, providing hundreds of items to print, from toys to tools. The downloadable files have easy-to-follow instructions and clearly labeled intellectual property rights that specify what you can do with the designs. As libraries start creating and sharing more of their own objects, Thingiverse is the logical place to store them, especially for findability purposes.

As libraries begin to improve their own surroundings via 3D printing (by installing shelf brackets, for example), it will become easier for others to justify a 3D printer purchase. In a recent study by Michigan Technological University Associate Professor Joshua Pearce and student researcher Emily E. Petersen, households that purchase an open source, entry-level 3D printer, such as the LulzBot Mini, can break even on cost in as little as six months of use. Over five years, printing only a handful of objects that might be used around the house (such as spoon holders, shower heads, or camera lens hoods), the study shows a nearly 1,000% return on investment over the cost of the printer and consumables. This could be an enormous savings and effort multiplier.

3D printer management

The most interesting technologies to emerge in the last few years in the 3D printing space are a variety of enterprise-style, management software programs. This software operates either within a separate piece of hardware that serves as middleware for the operation of the 3D printer or through software as a service that uses a web-based interface for control. Management software requires a dedicated device of some type connected to your 3D printer to bridge the gap between the printer and the web. That device can range from a desktop computer to an inexpensive tablet to a Raspberry Pi microcomputer.

As the technology becomes more fully featured, 3D printers will become as commonplace as laser printers.

Some of the benefits of using this software with your 3D printers are the ability to load models remotely over the web, queue and manage jobs, receive remote notifications of activity when prints are started or completed, and visually monitor prints via webcam. Libraries that offer 3D printing to the public will find huge benefits in using these tools. From providing a public website where users can upload their models to streaming a live video of your printer as it prints, this software can enhance your 3D printing services in numerous ways.

As the technology becomes more fully featured and capable of printing more complicated objects—and as the prices continue to drop—3D printers will eventually become as commonplace as laser printers. Not everyone will have one at home, but most people will have access to one if they need it. And much of that access can come through public libraries. These printers can even provide a return on investment if used to solve problems around the library for librarians and staff. Between the communities we serve and the processes and services we shepherd, 3D printing in libraries will definitely be around for a long time.