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3D Printing: an Overview

When I first heard about 3D printing, I assumed it was some sort of gimmick – an expensive gadget that people could use to “print” their own hokey plastic figurines.  In reality though, this is far from the truth and while expensive, these devices have the capability to create some very cool and also practical objects.  A 3D printer is a machine that prints multi-layer objects from digital models created with computer aided design (CAD) software programs.  Unlike traditional office printers, 3D printers do not print in ink.  There is a wide range of substances that objects can be printed from – depending on the desired outcome – from plastics to food stuffs.  Having trouble visualizing how this process works?  This video ( featuring students and faculty of Mechanical Engineering labs at the University of Washington provides a great visual look at how 3D printing works.

3D printers have a multitude of uses and potential uses that are being explored across domains.  Here are a few links to illustrate the diversity of uses for this technology:

To check out some objects that have been created, beyond those that have garnered media attention, Thingiverse is a website where individuals can share images of and patterns for objects and where other users can download the patterns to make their own.

While the anticipated impact on the manufacturing industry is evident, of particular interest is the potential utility 3D printing may have down the road in health care.  It is not far-fetched to imagine this technology having a major impact in this area and techniques emerge to custom print prosthetics or bioengineer tissue.  Take for instance the story of this duck who received a silicone printed replacement foot and was able to walk again.  Seeing the duck run across the grass with his new foot is touching and the story of this infant who received a 3D printed airway splint to treat his tracheobronchomalacia is incredible.  Like all technologies, 3D printers have fallen drastically in price since they first became commercially available and some models are being marketed for use in the home.  The availability of this technology to a wider audience has created some interesting questions and concerns.  One issue that has been in the news a lot lately is the ability of individuals to print guns and bullets at home, circumventing laws and regulations around firearms.  Perhaps more interesting for librarians and information professionals to consider though are some of the copyright concerns involved with both the design models involved as well as the finished objects.  This blog post by Readwrite provides a brief summary of the current state of potential legal battles around intellectual property and object replication.

Some libraries have begun to offer 3D printer access for patrons, with public libraries incorporating them into MakerSpaces and FabLabs and some academic libraries have begun to offer 3D printing services.  Models vary across academic libraries as to policies for the printers, a thread on this topic recently lit up the code4lib listserv discussing the potential policy considerations when providing a 3D printer for patron use for ranging from copyright enforcement to support and cost structures.  The 3D printer in Dalhousie University’s Learning Commons is available for use at a price of of $1 per hour and the 3D printing service provided by The University of Alabama Libraries, as described in this Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship article are provided for free to students, faculty and staff. 



One Response to “3D Printing: an Overview”

  1. Ann Glusker Says:

    This is fascinating! Thanks for putting all of these resources together, Mahria! I’m sure you are right and that we will be seeing more of this technology in future.