Original Content

What Do You Do With a 3D Printer?

“Big mac, 3D printer, 3D scanner” by John Klima is licensed under CC BY 2.0
This is the first in a series of posts about some technology I’ve introduced or will be introducing to my library. In my mind, the library is a place where the public can learn about new and emerging technologies without needing to invest in them. To that end, I’ve formed a technology committee at our library that will meet quarterly to talk about how we’re using the existing technology in the building and what type of technology we could introduce to the building.

This next two paragraphs have some demographic information so that you have an idea of whom I’m trying to serve (i.e., you can skip them if you want to get to the meat of the technology discussion).

I work at the Waukesha Public Library in the city of Waukesha, the 7th largest municipality in WI at around 72,000 people. We have a a service population of almost 100,000. The building itself is about 73,000 square feet with a collection of around 350,000 items.

Waukesha has a Hispanic population of about 10% with the remainder of our population being predominantly Caucasian. Our public is a pretty even mix across age groups and incomes. Technological interest also runs pretty evenly from early adopters to neophytes.

I’ve wanted a 3D printer forever. OK, only a few years, but in the world of technology a few years is almost forever. I didn’t bring up the idea to our executive director initially because I wasn’t sure I could justify the expense.

As assistant director in charge of technology at the library, I can justify spending up to a few hundred dollars on new technology. Try out a Raspberry Pi? Sure. Pick up a Surface? Go ahead. But spending a few thousand dollars? That felt like it needed more than my whim.

But after those few years went by and 3D printers were still a topic of discussion and I didn’t have one yet, I approached the executive director and our Friends group and got the money to buy a MakerBot Replicator 2 and a MakerBot Digitizer (it was the Digitizer that finally pushed me over the precipice to buy 3D equipment; more on that later).

So we bought the machine, set it up, and started printing a bunch of objects. At first it was just things on a SD card in the printer: a nut-and-bolt set, a shark, chain links, a comb, and a bracelet.

People loved watching the machine work. Particularly when it was making the chain links. They couldn’t understand how it could print interconnected chain links. I tried to explain that it printed in 100 micron thick layers (slightly thinner than a sheet a paper) and it built the objects up one layer at a time which let it make interconnected objects.

It made more sense if you could watch it.

Our young adult librarian starting making plans for her teen patrons. This past October we read Edgar Allan Poe as a community read and she had her teens make story jars of different Edgar Allan Poe stories using objects we printed: hearts, ravens, bones, coffins, etc.

One of our children’s librarians used the printer to enhance a board-game design program he ran. He printed out dice, figures, and markers that the kids could use when designing a game. Then they got to take their game home when they finished it. More recently he printed out a chess set that assembles into a robot for the winner of our upcoming chess tournament.

I printed out hollow jack o’ lanterns that showed a spooky face when you placed a small electric light inside them. When I realized I needed a desk organizer for the 3D printer I printed one instead of buying one.

“Mushroom candy tin and friend” by John Klima is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Now, as for the Digitizer. We’ve tried digitizing objects. To me that was the coolest thing we could do: make copies of physical objects. Unfortunately, the digitizer has worked poorly at best. It cannot handle small objects—things larger than a egg work best—and it cannot scan complicated or dull objects very well.

Our failures include a kaiju wind-up toy, a LEGO Eiffel Tower, and a squishy stressball brain. Our only success was a Mario Bros. mushroom candy tin. That scanned perfectly, but it’s round, shiny, and the perfect size. If you’re considering buying a digitizer, I would think twice about it (honestly, I’d recommend not getting one at this time).

Now the question I ask is: what’s next? The Replicator 2 isn’t the best machine to put out for public use as it would require quite a bit of staff oversight. There are some 3D printers—the Cube printer from 3D Systems for example—that are better suited for public use in my opinion. It’s currently a moot point as we don’t have space in our public area for one at this time, but I think offering one for public use is in our future plans somewhere down the line.

I’d like to use it more for programming in the library. I want to showcase it to the public more. Our technology committee will make plans so that we can do both of those things.

More importantly, what about the rest of you? Who has a 3D printer in their building? Do you use it for staff or public? Do you want to get a 3D printer for your library? What sorts of questions to have about them?


  1. Wendy Filla

    I’d love to know if anyone has tried out the MCor 3D printers. http://mcortechnologies.com/ They seem to offer a lower cost of ownership, full color prints, and use copier paper instead of plastic….

  2. Michael Rodriguez

    I spent yesterday in training to operate this same Makerbot Replicator 2, which our consortium is loaning out to member libraries. Totally agree with you about the 3D digitizer’s limitations. But I am excited to see the 3D printer as a hook to get students into the library. I also plan to conduct a Facebook and in-house poll for our users to decide which objects to print first.

    1. Marlon Hernandez

      Hi Michael,

      What software do you use to draw your objects? The go to one here is autocad but that program is overly complicated for the simple print job I need, mostly alphabets for our instruction area.

      1. Michael Rodriguez

        Hey Marlon,
        The trainers suggested using the free TinkerCad for designing 3D models. You can’t draw original objects, but you can heavily modify the shapes TinkerCad provides. Also, Thingiverse has many open source alphabet models that you might borrow.

        1. Marlon Hernandez

          Thanks for the tip! Might be simple enough for what I need. Reminds me of creating graphics with vector graphics

          1. John Klima

            We’ve used Tinkercad at my library, too. It’s a great tool to get introduced to 3D design. It’s web-based so you can use it on any machine without needing to install something.

            SketchUp and Autodesk 123 are more robust 3D modeling software that have free downloadable versions. I’ve downloaded both, but not had much of a chance to use either.

  3. monica0522

    We recently purchased a Digitizer for our library. I had the same frustrations as you regarding the scan quality, so I contacted Makerbot directly. The object I was trying to scan had a glossy surface, so they suggested lightly dusting it with flour. This worked like a charm. I am not suggested this will solve your issues, but it is worth a try.

  4. griffey

    Here’s where I drop my 3D printing blog posts from ALA Techsource (http://www.alatechsource.org/blogger/16), which are bits from my 3D printing Library Technology Report (http://jasongriffey.net/wp/2014/07/30/3d-printers-for-libraries/). OH, and my 3D printing video from CES 2015 (http://jasongriffey.net/wp/2015/01/09/ces-2015-3d-printers/) just a few weeks ago.

    I’ve used the MCOR printers, and talked extensively with the company for the last 2-3 years at CES. The biggest problem is that the printers themselves are VERY expensive ($20K+) and are fairly huge, not at all “desktop” capable. They are great machines, and it’s a really cool technology, but it’s not what I’d recommend for libraries.

  5. Marlon Hernandez

    We also have a Makerbot 2 and since we are a special library it has far different rules and uses here. It is open for anyone to use and is out in our public area, though the building is badge access after hours. Since we are burden funded, all costs of printing are covered by the library. This cause a little bit of a problem as initial usage was mainly interns who would print whatever interesting object they found on thingiverse. After a few months some objects that were slightly modified versions of thingiverse prints would show up. Once the Summer interns left, more of our full-time employees began to use it to print out prototypes. Like you mentioned in the post the quality can be lacking but once patrons realized this they merely used our printer as proof of concepts before using the more advanced, and therefore costlier, printers around lab. I’d like to share some of the cool prints people have made but because thingiverse retains most rights, JPL’s policy is to not post drawings there but rather on our internal sharepoint site.

    How do you deal with costs? Do you pass it along to the customer? What type of drawing software do you recommend to your users?

    1. John Klima

      We don’t currently offer the service to the public; we use it to enhance programs and therefore all costs are handled by the library. The libraries I know that have 3D printers available to the public either charge by time (i.e., $1 per 30 minutes) or weight (i.e., $0.05/gram). The MakerBot software has a preview option so that you can see print time and material usage before the job is started.

  6. Betsy Powell

    We offer classes twice a month (one for teens, one for adults) on how the 3D printer works. Anyone who attends the class can then come and print with supervision. It costs $0.15/gram. The class teaches them the basics (rafts, supports, type of plastic, etc) and then shows them very basic modeling using Tinkercad.

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