Last evening, I attended a 3D printer certification course at one of my local library branches, which now qualifies me to use the printers in the lab (with the assistance of the staff) for my own projects. We have a great library system in Toronto, and I’ve been using it since I was a kid, eagerly heading there every week to get my maximum allotment of books to check out. In the past several years, TPL has become much more than a place for physical books, however: they offer a number of digital services including e-book loans using Overdrive, Safari technical and business books online, digital magazines through RBdigital, streaming video via Kanopy, Lynda.com video tutorials, and Mango languages. Best of all, this is all free with your library card, supported by our Toronto tax dollars. It’s a total deal, and I usually donate to TPL every year since it greatly reduces the number of books that I buy.
The innovation hubs are relatively new, starting at the main reference library and now available in five other branches. They include 3D design and printing equipment, green-screen recording studios, classes to learn how to use the tools, and friendly staff to help you out.
As a total newbie at 3D printing, here’s a bit of what I learned last night in our 90-minute certification course.
About the printers:
- The Fort York branch, where I was, has five 3D printers: two Ultimaker 2+ (which is the standard now at most branches), one Ultimaker 2 Go (as a backup and to use for outreach events since it’s easier to carry), one MakerBot Replicator 2 and one LulzBot TAZ 5. The latter two were acquired during earlier phases of the innovation labs but haven’t really met the library’s needs going forward, and are being replaced by the Ultimakers.
- You can book a printer for up to two hours at a time, either by calling or dropping in at the branch. The printers require that you have your design on an SD card, so either prepare that at home or bring one along and have the local staff help you with that on a workstation in the lab. The older MakerBot and LulzBot printers at Fort York can actually be booked for longer than two hours if they are not otherwise booked, in case you want to do a bigger job.
- Printing costs are $0.10/g of filament, plus tax. The printer preparation software (see below) will tell you how much filament will be consumed in your print job, but expect $1-2 for a small item that you would print in less than two hours.
- No printing of weapons or sexually-explicit materials, and the library puts the onus on you for ensuring that you have the permission of any copyright owner.
- All of the library’s printers use PLA filament, which is a thermoplastic made from cornstarch and sugarcane. This is less durable than other filament types, and will break down with high heat and moisture, but has the advantage of not giving off noxious fumes during printing. It can be sanded, primed and painted if you want a different look or colour: keep in mind that with printing from a filament, one printed object is all one colour.
What and how to print:
- You can find a bunch of cool pre-made designs at Thingiverse, all available under a Creative Commons licence. Tupperware lid holder? Got it. Digital sundial? Yup. Hand-operated animated heart Valentine? You’re a bit late, but it’s there for next year. Just download the STL files directly from there, or upload your own if you want to share.
- If you want to create your own design, Autodesk has a free browser-based designer called Tinkercad that lets you create models using 3D shapes to add and remove material. Sounds simple, but you can build some pretty complex designs with it.
- For more organic shapes, Pixologic provides a free downloadable app called Sculptris: using it is more like digitally sculpting with clay rather than worrying about the explicit geometry.
- If you want a model from a 3D object – including yourself – some of the branches have 3D scanning capabilities. At Fort York, they have Occipital’s Skanect, which uses a Microsoft Kinect input device: you scan the object by walking around it and scanning it with the Kinect.
- Once you have a model in a standard STL, 3MF or OBJ format, you need to prepare it for printing. For the Ultimaker printers, download the free Cura software, load your design, tell it what type of printer and filament you’re using, set some parameters, and it will generate the gcode file required by the printer. Save that to an SD card and you’re all ready to print. Cura will also tell you how much material will be used, and how long the print job will take. The other two printer types have similar software available – I think that one of them uses a version of Cura, too – but check with the staff at your branch if you’re unsure how to do this, or just show up with your design and a blank SD card and they can help you.
In the future, I expect that a lot of small plastic replacement parts for consumer goods will be fulfilled using 3d printers: the plastic cover for your desk lamp switch breaks, and the manufacturer sends you the STL file and gives you the option to just print it yourself. In the meantime, I’m still looking for my first print project.