By Joe Southern
Libraries, they aren’t just for books anymore.
Years ago as the world moved into the computer age, libraries kept up with technology by making computers available to patrons. As technology advanced, so did the offerings at local libraries. Today is no different.
Last year the Fort Bend County Libraries added four 3D printers. Staff received training in September and the printers went live to the public in December. The libraries now offer classes to teach patrons how to use them and make the service available to the public.
“We’re exposing the public to new technology trends,” said Megan Moore, adult services manager at the Sienna Branch Library.
Moore has embraced the technology and oversees 3D printing operations at the library, including teaching classes. The printers are available at the libraries in Richmond, Cinco Ranch, Stafford and Sienna Plantation.
Although 3D printing technology and capabilities are rapidly expanding, Fort Bend Libraries offer a very basic service to start. The printers make plastic items in single colors by layering tiny beads of plastic (PLA thermoplastic) that melt together and harden to form the object. The printer moves across the printing surface in a mesmerizing movement much like the old dot-matrix printers.
“We get a lot of students who come in here and print robot parts,” Moore said.
Even the PolyPrinter 229 itself is made with 3D printed parts. Moore said that people print all kinds of things.
“Art, designs, jewelry … practical things, fun things and then there’s the pretty things,” she said.
She said she has a regular patron who is into astronomy and used the printer to make parts for his telescope. Another made a replacement key fob for one that broke. Several will make custom holders for their cell phones. She said she sees a lot of office supply items and small toys.
There are limits as to what can be printed and not just anyone can walk in and make something. They are not allowed to print anything that is copyrighted, trademarked or patented. Other items that cannot be printed include anything prohibited by law, anything unsafe, harmful or dangerous or anything “obscene or otherwise inappropriate for the FBCL environment.” The service is also limited to library cardholders and those with valid government-issued photo ID. The object to be printed cannot be larger than an eight-inch cube. It also can’t take longer than five hours to print.
Moore’s desk is decorated with numerous examples of things that can be printed. Among them are bookmarks, a doorstop, a butterfly puzzle, a toy helicopter and a cookie cutter. They are all examples she uses in her classes.
One of the things she teaches in class – and something many patrons already know – is how to use 3D design software to create the item to be printed. The software includes programs like Tinkercad, Blender, SketchUp or AutoDesk 123D. Moore said there are websites that have files partrons can download and use. Those sites include Thingiverse, YouMagine and My Mini Factory.
When a file is brought in, staff will review it to make sure it fits the printing parameters and guidelines. If approved, a cost estimate will be generated and the item must be paid for in advance of printing. After the item is printed, the patron is notified and has a week to pick it up. Moore said most items are printed within 48 hours. The cost is $.20 per gram of filament with a $1 minimum. Most items will cost just a few dollars to print.
Moore said as more people become aware of the printers the higher the demand becomes for the classes. Beginning in April, Moore will do classes twice a month. Each class has about 10-15 people. Each of the four libraries has their own class schedule which can be found on the Fort Bend County Libraries website, www.fortbend.lib.tx.us.