3D Printing

Below is a quick introduction into the world of 3D printing. Take a look at the 3D Resources page for information on where to buy and tips and tricks to help with your printer. Check out the Library Deployment page to see how to deploy on in your library!

Check back here often for more info, videos, pictures and help.

FAQ about 3D printers:

What is a 3D printer and how does it work?

A 3D printer takes a 3D render of an object or design and converts it to a real world object. Most modern, low cost designs are quite simple. They have 4 main parts: the plate, the motors, the extruder and the print material. The design is loaded on to the printer and parameters are set (speed, temperature, quality, etc). The printer starts to heat up. When the extruder reaches the desired temperature the print begins. The build plate will move up to the highest point and the extruder will pull in plastic filament and melt it down. As it heats filament coming in from the top it squirts the already melted plastic out of the bottom of the extruder and on to the build plate. The motors are on 2 axis and move the extruder around while it squirts out the plastic. Once the first layer is completed another motor moves the build plate down a hair so the next layer can begin. This process continues until every layer is finished.

Is it difficult to learn? Where do I start?

As with most new technology you can find useful tutorials and test items on the web.

For physical maintenance and use there are very helpful videos on YouTube:

Unboxing and initial setup



Once you pick your 3D printer you should learn how to print before you begin making your own 3D models. There are plenty of websites that host pre-made 3D designs that usually have been tested with most common printers. Find an object you want to print on one of these websites (or one that came preloaded with your device) and read all comments and instructions for the print. One website to find these models is Thingiverse. Once you print a basic object you can move on to more complicated objects requiring rafts, supports or even multiple moving parts. You can also try your hand at making your own 3D models or scans.

What materials are the prints made of? Is it safe?

Most extrusion-based printers use one of two plastic types: ABS or PLA. ABS tends to be more flexible and can be smoothed with acetone, but requires a heated plate and smells a lot like burning plastic while printing. PLA is made from renewable sources such as corn starch or sugarcane and smells much better when printing (like cookies in the oven). PLA also tends to warp less and have sharper, thinner edges. PLA's downside is its low melting point, which makes it a poor choice for something that will be placed in a high heat area (like the inside of a car on a hot day).

(More info)

Is it expensive? What reoccurring costs will there be?

Initial purchase price tends to be somewhere between $500 and $3k, depending on the type of printer. Lower cost printers tend to be less flexible, but can provide a great entry point for buyers on a budget. Once you break the $2k range you find printers that have larger build plates and more upgrade potential. Outside of potential upgrades, your only reoccurring cost is filament. PLA is sold for about $25 - $50 per kg. We suggest purchasing a small digital scale and charging patrons based on the weight of their material used.


Are there news articles about how libraries are using 3D printers?

Yes. Here are a few:

Here are some other news articles on how 3D printers are being used.

What have we printed?

In the beginning there was lots of experimentation. We printed basic things like nuts and bolts, combs and basic shapes. When we started to see what our printer could do we moved on to more difficult prints. We made things that were flexible to test the limits of PLA. We made things that fit together after printing to see how much the plastic shrinks when cooling. Throughout the process we learned that our printer needed an upgrade to the mechanism that feeds in the filament. We also tried many different ways to get items to stick to the build plate properly. Now that we understand the process and have very high quality prints we have started printing the complex models that piqued our interest in the first place and have even started designing some of our own models. It takes time and experience to reach a point where you can reliably print complex/difficult models, so be ready for the investment and enjoy the journey!

Some of our latest prints:

Designing and printing your own parts - Once you get to you your printer and how to get the best quality and strength out of your filament and prints, you can move on to designing your own parts! So far we have dabbled in a number of designs, many to replace broken clips and mounts that don't have replacement parts, allowing us to reuse items that would otherwise end up in a landfill.

Hydroponic Tower - This is a hydroponic tower that uses a small pump to move water to the top and "rain" it down over the roots of plants. It takes up very little space, and is a great way to teach about growing food and how plants work (you can lift the plants and roots right out of the tower to inspect!). It uses very little water and electricity, making it an environmentally smart way to grow your own food, especially in small/urban spaces. All you need is a cheap pump, bucket, a few feet of tubing and you can stack the modules as high as you want your tower!

What about a working Ukulele, or a drone! - These projects took a little more time to complete and needed some non-3D printed parts to function, but really showed the flexibility of a 3D printer and what can be achieved. Best of all, you can tweak the model to fit your needs or concept and have a truly custom project! Print replacement parts as needed if you crash the drone or smash your ukulele after a performance.

Breath Mouse - We used common parts, a 3D printer, and some simple electronics for this project. Total cost came in under $15, making this project significantly less expensive than commercial products, which often start at over $300. Learn about this awesome project to make a mouth and breath operated mouse here.

“Fittle” Fish – The idea of this fish and the other shapes to come is that it can teach braille letters, spelling, basic shapes and word association in one tool. Each peg is a different shape ensuring the fish can only be put together in one way. The line down the body of the fish helps make sure each piece is placed with the braille side up. Once together the fish allows the visually challenged to associate the basic shape of an object with the word while learning braille letters and the spelling of the word along the way. You can find the fish and other shapes on the project site, and on Thingiverse as well. Check out this great video of the project!

USA Map – This is another tool to help learn the shape and location of each state.

Geared Cube – used to demonstrate different filaments (this one has normal PLA, wood, thermochromatic and glow in the dark)