Fernandez, P. (2014), "“Through the looking glass: envisioning new library technologies” the possibilities and challenges of 3-D printing", Library Hi Tech News, Vol. 31 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/LHTN-05-2014-0035Download as .RIS
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“Through the looking glass: envisioning new library technologies” the possibilities and challenges of 3-D printing
Article Type: Column From: Library Hi Tech News, Volume 31, Issue 5
The previous column considered augmented reality and how it blurs the lines between the virtual and physical worlds by layering virtual information onto physical reality. This column explores three-dimensional (3-D) printing, a rapidly developing technology that has the potential to blur these lines in the opposite direction. As dropping prices spawn a new wave of 3-D printers aimed at mainstream audiences, now is an opportune time for libraries to assess how they want to utilize this technology, now and in the future. This column will provide a brief overview of the history and potential of 3-D printers and examine the opportunities and complications of using this technology in a library setting.
History of 3-D printing
3-D printing has its roots in additive manufacturing, which has the capacity to quickly and cheaply transform a computer model into a physical object. At its core, 3-D printing is a class of technologies that use robots (3-D printers) to create new objects by layering material on top of itself to conform to the specifications of a digital design. This layering technique enables a single machine to produce a vast array of different objects. The designation “3-D printing” reflects the sense that this technology is poised to become mainstream, as this new class of robotic manufacturing may transform the production of objects just as ink printers transformed the production of text.
3-D printing has existed in some form since the 1980s. Early efforts were largely the product of industries that wanted to develop rapid forms of prototyping. By using flexible robots that could be easily programmed to manufacture new models, these early adopters hoped to quickly experiment with new designs and produce new products faster and more efficiently.
It is only recently that 3-D printing has emerged as a set of machines, services and concepts that can redefine almost every aspect of the supply chain and alter the relationship between producers and consumers. A quick news search on the topic yields a constant stream of reports and applications of the technology, many of which focus on the impact of 3-D printers in established industries and high-end research firms that can use this technology to produce new designs faster than ever before. Startup businesses and mainstream retailers such as Staples now sell printers and printed objects in stores, while others are developing mail order printing of custom objects.
In their 2014 report for higher education, the New Media Consortium Horizon report anticipates wide adoption of 3-D printing technology in higher education within the next two to three years. Press coverage of these innovations has further raised awareness of 3-D printing in consumers’ minds, and a recent survey found that one-third of US households would consider purchasing a 3-D printer in 2014. Of those, “65 per cent of consumers were interested in creating and printing customized items for the home” (#B11). Already successful at the hobbyist level, a combination of existing manufacturers and successful crowd-funding campaigns on Kickstarter has enabled the production of a new generation of inexpensive, simple to use, entry-level 3-D printers aimed at a wide range of consumers.
Present and future
In addition to getting cheaper, printers have also become more powerful and precise. They can now create objects using materials other than plastic, including polycarbonate resins, rubber and even basic cells. For example, 3-D printers can already produce chocolates and other sweets (#B8). Looking forward, manufacturers are currently developing printers to assist in the production of full meals, both for the home and for hospitals and restaurants (#B15).
One potentially radical application of 3-D printing is in the area of biotechnology. Not only can 3-D printers produce living cells, but new printers are being conceived of that will work in four-dimensional. These printers will create materials that can change over time or in reaction to particular stimuli, such as objects that can assemble and disassemble based on temperature, or materials that repair themselves when torn (#B14). Current technology allows companies to utilize 3-D printing to speed up the production of houses. One company in China is reportedly already using printers to produce up to 10 house-like structures a day (#B5). In the future, this technology could eventually transform how we think of construction, with some parts being grown or produced on-site.
Some additional examples of the breadth of innovations already underway with 3-D printing include:
organs, skin grafts and other body parts (#B9);
dinosaur vertebra for museums and research (#B13);
rocket engines for space flight (#B6);
consumer solar panels (#B10);
tracking tags to enable quick and inexpensive tracking of big fish (#B16);
sculptures (#B7); and
a 3-D edible gummy version of yourself (#B2).
Implications for libraries
For libraries interested in education or digital/media literacy, the use of 3-D printing technology can support new kinds of learning. 3-D printing will enable people in fields as diverse as design, architecture, geology, food science, art and business entrepreneurship to prototype their ideas for relatively little cost. Libraries are uniquely positioned to assist these fields by providing support in physical technology, skills and services.
Although the overall cost of 3-D printers is dropping, many will be unable to afford personal access to this technology. Others will need access to high-end printers that remain relatively expensive for the average person. Sophisticated 3-D printers produce dramatically different results than their cheaper counterparts. Thus, entrepreneurs and artists who own an inexpensive printer may still wish to use a high-end model to print detailed objects using specialized materials. Libraries can be a community resource by providing their broad constituencies with access to this technology.
In addition to providing access to actual 3-D printers, libraries can also build collections and services to facilitate knowledge acquisition. These machines require new skills and conceptual models to operate effectively. Even libraries without printers can purchase books on 3-D printing and provide basic conceptual training. Once a library has invested in a printer, they can develop hands-on training workshops, similar to how many libraries provided patrons with their first experience using Internet resources.
Many libraries already serve as a meeting place between virtual and physical worlds, and can provide their patrons a crucial link to emerging online forums and virtual networks centered on concepts surrounding 3-D printing and their accompanying digital models. Libraries can be a physical place not only for creating objects but also for facilitating the transmission of knowledge between these communities. They can do this by participating in these spaces, and referring patrons to existing resources.
Perhaps, most importantly, libraries can help by being actively involved in building shared resources and tutorials to help patrons overcome learning barriers.
Makerspaces, hackerspaces and fab labs
Libraries are spaces for creating and learning, and students have traditionally used libraries to create intellectual outputs based on what they have learned in the classroom. Traditionally, these outputs have emerged in the form of papers and articles, but the diversity of outputs has expanded alongside technology.
As users seek to produce a wider variety of technology-assisted outputs, libraries are increasingly creating new spaces that serve these needs. These spaces, which are sometimes called makerspaces, hackerspaces or fab labs, can assist patrons with a wide variety of technology needs, including 3-D printer assistance. Makerspaces, for example, offer a large array of technology services, including 3-D printing, multi-media support and soldering irons, and they occupy a distinct, but related, conceptual space as 3-D printing labs. For more on these spaces, see “Hot off the Press! Fab labs and libraries” from Library Hi Tech News (#B1).
3-D technology can inspire active learning and enable students to grapple with complicated questions in new ways. Libraries in educational settings can use 3-D printing technology to facilitate self-directed learning, allowing patrons to manipulate physical representations of previously digital objects. Because 3-D models are both tactical and visual, they engage different learning styles and can acclimate learners to new concepts. Thus, elementary school teachers can use 3-D printers to create unique games, biology professors can print models of enlarged cell molecules and artists can design tactile models of their concepts. Because objects can be printed quickly, they can respond to emerging needs. An instructor who notices a learning barrier can produce a model to help explain the concept in a new way for the next class. Libraries that support instructors can be a resource for considering how to use models to support everything, from lab exercises to popular education games.
In addition to producing impressive models to inspire new learners, 3-D printing technology can enable experts to interrogate information in new and innovative ways. Libraries can facilitate this kind of investigation. For example, a library could scan and print a rare artifact, such as a cuneiform tablet, allowing researchers and guests to physically interact with otherwise untouchable objects. A medical library could print a life-sized model of an organ based on an exact scan of a patient, allowing surgeons to better prepare for difficult surgeries.
Customize your world
A recent study estimated that 3-D printers, combined with open-source design principles, could cut optics lab costs by as much as 97 per cent by simply printing many of the basic parts for specialized equipment (#B17). Lab parts tend to be costly in part to offset the overhead of designing the machines, but also because the parts that make up the machines have historically been difficult to make and were produced in small quantities.
In any situation where customizability is more important than the economies of scale that mass production facilitates, there are tremendous advantages to being able to make new practical objects quickly. Libraries with 3-D printers can create supplies on demand to meet the needs of their library, everything from custom storage for materials to dioramas for space planning. Libraries that support businesses, museums and communities can facilitate the production of customized equipment and products.
This, in turn, may facilitate new ways of thinking about how objects can be personalized or tailored to meet the needs of niche groups, from customized prosthetics to phone cases and jewelry. The example of food can help clarify this potential, as the food industry is a place where the advantages of customization over standardization are relatively clear. Not only could food-based 3-D printers help meet individuals’ taste preferences, but these printers could also help produce on-demand cheap foods for markets as diverse as astronauts to care facilities, both of which need to produce nutritionally rich meals with soft materials.
3-D printers are small-scale, flexible manufacturing robots, powered by computer models of the objects they create. In this context, computer-aided design changes from a documentation tool used by only a few people to a new type of technology/media literacy. Users of this technology will need to be able to create and manipulate digital models of objects. Depending on the technology used by the printer (and there are several – including new techniques that are more akin to sculpting than printing), users will need to determine how to use the printer to produce the desired object. Some types of materials will bend if exposed to heat, while other configurations require support structures. The type of plastic material used can also be an important decision point. As the outputs become more sophisticated, so too must the inputs, including the knowledge and expertise needed to operate the printer.
The amount of data contained within a 3-D model is exponentially larger and more complex than that contained within a 2-D equivalent. As a result, the software needed to create these objects tends to be more complicated than graphic design software, which presents new conceptual challenges for the end user. Moreover, the model has relatively little room for error because it will be transformed into a real-world object that must conform to the laws of physics. Every failed print incurs some costs and usually a great deal of time.
While this is clearly an opportunity for libraries to provide services, it is also a constraint on the technology, at least in the near-term. Libraries attempting to integrate 3-D printers will need to grapple with the inherent complexity of these interactions. When a job fails to print, expertise is required to accurately assess the source of the problem. Even highly trained well-funded experts need to contend with complicated or malfunctioning machines whose products can take hours to complete. Additionally, many current generation 3-D printers have large space footprints, and can even pose health risks if used improperly or if used in spaces without proper ventilation. All of which can make scalability an ongoing challenge that will only be somewhat alleviated as the technology progresses. These complications cannot be entirely avoided by libraries that want to position themselves as facilitating the next generation of the technology and to serve as a gateway to introducing 3-D printers to their patrons.
Online forums of hobbyists already contain a wealth of knowledge and expertise, even though they have not always developed to the point that they are intuitive for new users. Libraries can help by facilitating and curating this knowledge. Individual libraries need not tackle these challenges alone; rather, libraries using similar printers and technology can collaborate to create unified training materials. Libraries can also provide tools and services, such as 3-D scanners that allow inexperienced users to begin working with models of known objects. Novice users can even start by working with centralized repositories of knowledge, such as Thingiverse (http://www.thingiverse.com), which hosts models of all kinds of objects that can be downloaded and printed.
Printer neutral platforms such as Thingaverse comprise a large percentage of objects that are currently printed, though many users then modify the model to meet their personal needs. While training materials are relatively easy to share, there are challenges to continuing the open exchange of 3-D models and materials. According to one survey of current users, about 75 per cent used or created objects with creative commons licenses, which enables easy legal reuse. Although this is positive for those who favor the open sharing of information, more than half of these respondents were also concerned that centralized repositories would make some later claim on their creations (#B12).
Just as many libraries have taken a position on other kinds of intellectual property, such as open-source publishing models and data curation, libraries have the opportunity to play a role in developing standards around the creation and distribution of this new kind of intellectual property. Manufacturers of some of the most mainstream printers such as 3DS and XYZprinting have already sparked controversy by their use of proprietary formats and materials (#B4). These formats help them to simplify their processes, but they also reduce interoperability.
While 3-D printing democratizes the inventing and prototyping process for new ideas and concepts, it also democratizes the potential for intellectual property violations. For example, a patron could use a 3-D scanner to scan and print a model replica of an apple for an art project. The same process could also be used to replicate an innovative phone case. Unlike the printed apple, however, a variety of copyrights or patents may protect the design of the case. Although libraries may have experience with copyright law, the possibilities of 3-D printing present new challenges, and these issues are largely unsettled (#B3). These complications extend not only to scanned objects but also to the replication of more complicated patented objects that require technical knowledge to reverse engineer.
In addition to intellectual property concerns, 3-D printing raises a host of other concerns about censorship and ethical liability. In some highly publicized examples, 3-D printers have been used to help create guns or other weapons. Communities may try to censor or ban certain printed objects, such as sexually explicit or otherwise offensive materials. The potential to print food, medical supplies and other objects raises important ethical concerns. Libraries with printers will thus need to make complicated decisions about what they will print and how they will monitor printer spaces.
3-D printing is on the verge of transforming a wide variety of fields. Most importantly for libraries, general awareness of this emerging technology among patrons appears to be nearing a tipping point. As low-end printers enter the mainstream, libraries can be a community resource by providing services to help educate users and by potentially providing access to higher end printers. Libraries have an opportunity to meet the emerging needs that these printers will create.
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About the author
Peter Fernandez (email@example.com) is based at Webster C. Pendergrass Agriculture & Veterinary Medicine Library, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Tennessee, USA.