BOISE, Idaho (AP) - It was one of those mundane household items that Al Pittman thought he’d be able to pick up at one of the many home improvement stores in the Treasure Valley - a thermostat trim plate.
Pittman checked several places but couldn’t find one that fit just right. So what next?
A trip to the Boise Public Library, where he just made the plastic plate himself.
The main branch of the library, at 715 S. Capitol Blvd., has two 3-D printers. The public may drop in, no charge, and make items with the machines from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays (6 p.m. First Thursdays), now billed as “3-D Thursdays.”
“I think it’s really cool that they’re offering this opportunity for free,” said Bill Boyle, who designs fire trucks for a living.
For fun and to get a feel for the 3-D printers, Boyle made a gear box keychain on a recent Thursday. It took about an hour and a half.
These nontraditional printers use information from digital files to fabricate three-dimensional objects. A range of materials is available on the market, including metal, but the Boise Public Library provides only nontoxic, biodegradable plastic for use.
Boyle has read a lot about the printers - the Smithsonian Institution got a lot of attention when it printed a bust of President Barack Obama last year - and seen demonstrations at stores. But the library machines gave Boyle a chance to use one himself.
He said he’d like to buy one to use at home to make parts for things and toys for his kids. The price of home 3-D printers is coming down, with models selling for less than $1,000, including the $100 Peachy Printer (available in July).
Public libraries try to provide patrons with access to tools and technology they may not have at home (computers, e-readers and e-books, for instance), and try to stay current with the needs and interests of users.
Heather Lewis, who oversees the library’s 3-D printing program, said the machines offer users another way to use their imagination and access information. It’s a different way to engage students.
“You get to learn about the X and Y axis in a really fun way,” Lewis said.
After hosting Teen 3-D Camp last year, one of the participants wrote the library to say using the printers “got her excited about science and technology,” Lewis said.
The library purchased two MakerBot Replicator 2 printers - each about $2,500 - with money from the Friends of the Public Library. The setup also includes several laptops, as well as 12 spools of plastic filament in a variety of colors. Each spool (2.2 pounds) costs about $50.
“That goes a really long way,” Lewis said. “We haven’t run out of any of our spools.”
An item the size of a 3-inch cube requires about 2 grams of filament, or about 8 to 10 cents’ worth. The largest item that can be printed with these machines is 11 by 6 by 6 inches.
These printers heat the plastic filament to more than 400 degrees, melting it. A little like a pasta machine, the printer’s “extruder” pumps out thin layers onto a “build plate” one layer at a time, starting with an outline and then filling in a hexagon pattern, said Anne Marie Martin, a library assistant.
“Don’t come in and think you’re going to have a perfectly smooth finished product,” Lewis warned. “It’s more about prototyping items and trying things out. It’s a process, but it’s a really fun process. It’s really empowering.”
The library has been offering 3-D printing since summer. The printers are in the first-floor Gates Room.
A librarian is available in the room to help users with their projects. Having printed a number of items they have displayed on tables in the room, the librarians can help troubleshoot.
Last year, the library had patrons sign up for printing time slots. There was so much interest that they created waiting lists, with two to 10 people on the lists.
But because people signed up as far as three months out, they sometimes forgot about their appointment. That’s why this year the printers are available on a drop-in basis. Printing slots are limited to two hours, although arrangements can be made for longer projects.
What are people printing? The list of items one recent Thursday: pieces from a sculpture, letters, Catan game board pieces, a heart infinity chain, a bookmark, a toy fox and narwhal, and a saxophone mouthpiece.
“One lady who came in was looking for a fence hook she could hang things on. She printed it off,” Lewis said.
In September, The American Library Association released “Progress in the Making,” a four-page policy overview and tip sheet for libraries. One issue raised in it: Should people be able to make firearms at the library? The Boise Public Library has no policies against printing any particular object, Martin said. But the type of plastic Boise uses isn’t what’s used to print up a gun, and that would take longer than two hours anyway.
Free designs for objects of all kinds can be found on websites such as Thingiverse.com. Those who want to make them from scratch use TinkerCad.com and other sites, which are also free.
Lewis helped one patron make a replica of a 9-year-old’s beloved stuffed animal. She shot a couple dozen images with her cellphone, then loaded it into an app that created a three-dimensional image for the printer.
If the idea of printing 3-D objects at the library is hard for you to grasp, don’t let that stop you from checking it out.
“One of the things we’re trying to promote at the library is that you don’t have to be an expert in any shape or form,” Lewis said. “You don’t have to be an engineer.”
Information from: Idaho Statesman, https://www.idahostatesman.com
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