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Monday, August 18, 2014

3D printer comes to Milford library - what would Gutenberg say?

David Brooks

Libraries are quiet and clean, workshops are loud and dirty – never the twain shall meet, right?

Wrong, at least to an extent. ...

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Libraries are quiet and clean, workshops are loud and dirty – never the twain shall meet, right?

Wrong, at least to an extent.

Consider the newest addition to Wadleigh Memorial Library in Milford. It’s a 3D printer, the poster child for 21st century manufacturing possibilities.

The printer, the size of a microwave oven, was set up last week alongside the check-out desk. It will be available for patrons to use at a small charge – probably 20 cents per gram for the finished product, although details are being worked out.

It is already proving to be an attraction for people like 10-year-old Lucas Martens, who will be entering fifth grade at Amherst Middle School. When I visited last week, Lucas was staring hungrily at the printer while mom checked out books.

Does he have one like it at home, I asked.

“I wish,” he cried, eyeing mother Carolyn in an obvious attempt to implant gift ideas for Christmas.

This library’s device is a MakerBot Replicator 2, a roughly $2,000 machine on long-term loan from the Billerica, Mass., office of Stratasys, MakerBot’s parent.

It melts threads of a plastic called PLA and uses a moving head, very much like the head on your computer’s printer, to squirt out the plastic in detailed patters, layer upon layer upon layer, building up the item programmed via its computer-aided design software.

These items can be as big as a cubic foot, ranging from figurines to bracelets to bolt-and-nut assemblies with tight thread patterns to intricate shapes with internal spaces that would be impossible to create otherwise. Because they are built up by adding material layer upon layer, 3D printing is part of what’s known as “additive manufacturing,” in contrast to traditional “subtractive” methods, where you start with a block of material and remove the material you don’t want.

PLA plastic printing is the low end of additive manufacturing, which can use a variety of techniques and materials, including metals, to create huge, intricate and valuable industrial objects. Additive manufacturing has already become part of traditional industry, usually for fast-prototyping during the design process or for creation specialized devices such as jewelry or dental implants, and its use is only going to grow.

That’s why libraries want to help teach people about it.

Milford and Keene are the only two public libraries in the state with 3D printers, but I suspect that will change. Libraries around the country are adding 3D printers and sometimes other devices embraced by the “maker movement” as they morph into something more than just places to read, prodded in part by the shift to ebooks and partly by people’s needs in the Great Recession.

“We’re creating content, not just storing content,” is the way Library Director Michelle Sampson put it.

Milford town resident Peter Basiliere, who is head of the library development fund and who analyzes the 3D printing industry for technology analysis firm Gartner, was the driving force behind this acquisition.

“The role of the library, and particularly the role of the Wadleigh Library, has evolved over the past few years. It has evolved to support the community beyond providing books and reference materials, by supporting people who need to develop new skills,” he said.

“It’s not just printing, it’s designing, creating,” he said. “Engineers, designers, artists - they can all benefit from understanding the potential of 3D printing.”

I visited last week to check it out, and they let me print an Old English capital T, The Telegraph’s online logo. It was easy.

I downloaded a free design file from a website called Thingiverse (thank you “Prattotyper,” the Thingiverse member who created it).

Reference Librarian Kim Gabert processed the file through MakerBot’s software, then Head of Circulation Mary Ann Shea loaded up the machine with a PLA filament in a lovely shade of purple, and we were off.

The MakerBot chortled to itself for about five minutes while its moving head laid down layer upon layer upon layer of PLA, which stuck together and hardened into my T.

Gabert removed it from the machine, I snapped off the base that exists to make printing easier, and voila! A four-gram memento. I admit I didn’t pay the library the 80 cent fee – probably a breach of journalism ethics.

How did all book people become 3D printing leaders? Well, how do you think?

“I was the one who picked up a book and read about it,” said Shea. She also attended a training session at MakeIt Labs, the Nashua makerspace, where hands-on geekiness is a way of life.

Basiliere and library staff would like to add a 3D scanner to the mix, so people could create printable files by scanning real-world items rather than just downloading files.

As an example, Basiliere talked about the local historical society scanning rare items from Milford’s past, then printing out an exact copy to be displayed, or even handled.

“It’s cool, but it’s also practical,” said Basiliere.

That’s a pretty good slogan for 3D printing. And libraries.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Brooks on Twitter @granitegeek