It took the Makerbot Replicator 2X 3D printer at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. three hours to print our 4-inch-tall, hollow pen and pencil holder.
Hallie Busta It took the Makerbot Replicator 2X 3D printer at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. three hours to print our 4-inch-tall, hollow pen and pencil holder.

Until recently, access to 3D printers and scanners has primarily been limited to those working in behemoth design firms and research institutions. Now, the public sector is stepping up and offering use of additive-manufacturing tools at comparatively affordable rates. U.S. libraries are giving professionals and hobbyists alike the chance to try out the emerging DIY product-design platform without the overhead equipment costs.

A few blocks from the Washington, D.C., offices of our parent company, Hanley Wood, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s queue is full of bits and trinkets waiting to be printed in one of its two 3D printers. Nearly 50 printing requests are submitted each week, says Nicholas Kerelchuk, who manages the public library’s digital space—meaning the waiting period for one request can be as long as four weeks. The library also is in the process of rolling out a 3D scanner, which will allow members of the public to digitally copy—and even print—just about anything.

“Libraries are becoming one of the first [places] people are actually seeing this in the public forum,” Kerelchuk says. The printing and scanning services have attracted patrons whose design and modeling skills range from simply downloading a ready-to-print file from one of the numerous online resources that trade in them, such as Thingiverse, CGTrader, and Shapeways, to designing their pieces using CAD software. Web-based platforms such as SketchUp offer free modeling software streamlined for use by beginners while Autodesk’s suite of free mobile apps, including its 123D series Catch, Creature, Design, and Make platforms, let advanced users model objects away from their desktop computers.

With many models available online to download for free, we decided to print this pencil holder (shown) from Thingiverse for a few reasons. It will serve a practical purpose holding writing utensils on this reporter’s desk. It printed in one piece, important because the library’s online form doesn’t allow for uploading multi-component models. Its flat bottom and minimal spans meant we didn’t have to design in supports (to avoid printing a pile of collapsed plastic). And we thought it would look good on camera. Watch the piece come to life below—for your convenience, we condensed the three-plus hours of printing into one minute.

The MLK library currently has two extrusion printers: a 3D Systems CubeX Trio and a Makerbot Replicator 2X. The CubeX Trio can print a single object with up to three colors and is ideal for larger pieces—up to 12-inches cubed—with limited detail. The Replicator 2X is suitable for smaller objects with intricate detail, but it can only print one color per object. The printing medium for both printers is a non-toxic, bio-degradable, and bio-based polylactic acid, which Kerelchuk says is less expensive and more environmentally friendly than some of the newer materials, including nylon, wood-fiber filaments, and liquid metal.

Printing at the MLK library requires a library card and payment of a nominal fee based on the finished piece’s cost per gram—in our case, that was $1.15 for 3 grams including a $1 base charge. Patrons submit a stereolithography, or STL, file through the library’s online form and it is added to the queue. The library staff determines the queues for their two printers based on the size of the files, their colors (six are offered, plus the plastic printing material’s natural white hue), and the number of colors required for each. The object is printed and a staff member notifies the patron that it is ready for pickup.

The library is gradually rolling out its NextEngine 3D Scanner to the public via free classes that teach the accompanying NextEngine ScanStudio HD software while the staff works out some of the scanner’s bugs. “With 3D scanning, you can create your own file in a different way,” Kerelchuk says. “Objects such as cell phone cases, parts, mechanized pieces, whatever you can possibly think of, can actually be scanned and a digital file can be created.”


Our Playmobile figurine of 15th century German painter Albrecht Dürer following a a successful run through the NextEngine 3D scanner at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.
Hallie Busta Our Playmobile figurine of 15th century German painter Albrecht Dürer following a a successful run through the NextEngine 3D scanner at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C.

To test out the scanning technology, I asked MLK library associate Adam Schaeffer to do a 360-degree scan of ARCHITECT’s resident 15th-century German artist, a Playmobile figurine of Albrecht Durer. Schaeffer was able to capture the scale, color, and most details of the 3-inch-tall Durer. During the 25-minute scan, Durer’s image was divided into 10 facings, which were scanned individually as the gimble rotated the toy to expose each section to the laser scanner. The sections are read by the computer as separate scans and then combined, alerting Schaeffer to errors or other information gaps—literally, physical holes in the model—that keep the piece from being water-tight. The technology isn’t seamless. Schaeffer re-scans sections that didn't render properly. Following his work on Next Engine’s platform, Schaeffer fine-tunes the file in Autodesk’s Meshmixer to eliminate excess material and draw out the design’s minutiae. Then, the file is ready to print.

Libraries across the country are offering 3D modeling to the masses. In June 2012, Cleveland Public Library became one of the first libraries to offer 3D printing to the public. Since then, libraries from Sacramento to Denver to Westport, Conn., have begun to make the technology available to the public as part of a broader push to provide digital tools and education in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields.

In July 2013, the Chicago Public Library launched a six-month trial of three MakerBot Replicator 2x printers at its Harold Washington branch, in downtown Chicago, which Ruth Lednicer, the library’s director of marketing and communications, says has been “a really exciting experiment.” The library plans to rotate the printers among a handful of its branches beginning this month. The Harold Washington location also houses two additional MakerBots in a new media space catering to teens. Individuals from the Fab Lab at the city’s Museum of Science and Industry and the founders of Chicago-based tech hardware hub Inventables help train the staff and lead educational seminars at the library.

The MLK library offers instructive classes in 3D printing, 3D scanning, and their related software as well as general computer programming. The educational programs and open workshop lab time at the Harold Washington library have attracted 22,000 individuals to the space to work with CNC mills and laser cutters in addition to the 3D printers, which Lednicer says are the most popular equipment.

“It has brought what we consider the 21st-century technology and the future of manufacturing to people who wouldn’t have access to it otherwise,” Lednicer says.

In November, the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., launched a Web portal that tracks its efforts to digitize a portion of its 137-million-object collection. The renderings and 3D models will be made available for free via a Web-based Autodesk platform. The nearly two-dozen items scanned and modeled to date aim to make the agency’s extensive collection available for educational and archival purposes worldwide without having to transport the priceless treasures. So far, the items scanned and modeled include a woolly mammoth skeleton, Amelia Earhart’s flight suit, and an Embreea orchid. Forbes reports that digitizing the entire Smithsonian collection would take 270 years of continuous scanning using current technology, and that the agency is looking for partners to help it develop more efficient digitalization technology.

“A lot of people, I don’t think, fully understand the gravity that [3D-printing and scanning] is holding,” Kerelchuk says. “You’re taking something that was impossible 10 or even five years ago and we’re putting it in the hands of the people. You may have had ambitions to do certain things with design [and] now you can do that in your home or at your local library, where you couldn’t have done that before.”