It seems recently that I can’t turn around without hearing about a 3D printing revolution. Our Emerging Technologies librarian, ahead of the curve as always, recently blogged about an interesting fusion of ideas and trends cropping up: the role of 3D printers in libraries.
What is a 3D printer, exactly? It is a device that “prints” out models (based on digital designs) by layering material, usually a form of plastic (or new materials like the intriguingly-named carbomorph). 3D printers currently on the market run the gamut from really expensive professional grade printers (~$20,000) to hobbyist (and self-replicating!) machines for several hundred dollars. The models being printed also exhibit a breathtaking diversity – everything from new designs of mobile phone charging stands to models of molecules and human tissues.
Engadget wrote on the potential impact of 3D printing on higher education, and I think a quote from an engineering student sums it up well:
“3D printing allows you to prototype rapidly and iterate quickly so it really levels the playing field in terms of design,” [Steven] Keating said. “Anyone with a program like Sketchup can design something without needing access to a machine shop or knowing how to operate fabrication equipment. I think it’s creating a Renaissance in manufacturing and the design world because even the average person can use it.”
Naturally, changes of this magnitude will have their own set of challenges – in this case, some are technical, many are legal. Maker Librarian has a great overview listing on 3D printers, including an entire section on legal issues. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is leading the charge to keep 3D printing an open community endeavor, unencumbered by patent restrictions:
“Community-designed printers already outclass proprietary printers costing 30 times as much. This incredible innovation is possible because the core patents covering 3D printing technologies started expiring several years ago, allowing projects such as RepRap to prove what we already knew—that openness often outperforms the patent system at spurring innovation. Open hardware printers have been used for rapid prototyping of new inventions, to print replacement parts for household objects and appliances.”
In my opinion, simply shoving a 3D printer into a library isn’t going to be enough (even though there are some that are quite affordable – Wired reported on a couple under $500), at least not while the technology is so new. We, certainly in partnership with our academic units (if we’re part of an academic institution), need to be teaching people how to use these singular inventions. We need to give them the basic skills so that they can in turn take that knowledge and remix it and come up with things we can hardly begin to imagine today. A few schools are paving the way, and ACRL’s Tech Connect blog recently wrote about the Venn diagram intersection of makerspaces and academic libraries. I can happily report that although U of M wasn’t mentioned in that article – we’ve got a 3D printer lab! Part of the Digital Media Commons in North Campus’s Duderstadt Center, they even have a bevy of online tutorials.
These are exciting times to be sure – whether the Economist’s proclamation of a third industrial revolution proves accurate or not, 3D printing technology is here to stay – the question is, what are we going to do with it? It’s a particularly salient question for health sciences libraries, given the myriad potential innovations this technology can have on health and medicine. 3D printing has already been used to create prosthetic limbs and custom dental fixtures – the latest buzz, as mentioned above – is creating regenerative human tissue by building up layer upon layer of cells. Seems to me like quite a fruitful collaboration opportunity with our engineering librarian colleagues.