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UMFK blazes a trail for public 3D printing

November 17, 2015


Aaron Bernstein applied for a grant through the UMFK Foundation. At the annual UMFK Foundation meeting in 2015, Bernstein appealed to the board to fund the printer and scanner by proving the printer's usefulness as an enrichment tool. 

In a small corner of a publicly accessible computer lab in the University of Maine at Fort Kent Blake Library is a gray cube that has students talking all across the campus.

Students, staff, and faculty were taking trips to that special corner to watch a 3D printer, which is about the size of a dorm refrigerator, as it slowly created a detailed replica of a human hand.

The 3D printer, a 3DSystems CubePro, is the first time the University of Maine System has placed the new technology in a library and made it available to all students, staff, faculty, and community patrons. 3D printers have been around in one form or another for many years, and other UMS campuses have installed the devices and made them available to specific departments or programs. UMFK has made the technology, which can be prohibitively expensive, available to any patron who comes to the library.

The library also has a portable scanner which allows people to record objects in three dimensions which the printer can later create.

The process of printing a 3D object occurs with the CubePro laying down multiple thin layers of whatever "ink" it is using. The layers stack up as the process continues until the machine has stacked enough layers to complete the object.

The university gained the printer through the combined efforts of many people, but especially the vision and drive of Assistant Director of Media Services Aaron Bernstein.

Bernstein applied for a grant through the UMFK Foundation. At the annual UMFK Foundation meeting in 2015, Bernstein appealed to the board to fund the printer and scanner by proving the printer's usefulness as an enrichment tool.

He pointed out that libraries need to take in mind the modernization of society when considering their future. “I have a device in my pocket, through which I can access more information than any library can hold, within seconds,” Bernstein said, referring to his mobile phone. “The value of libraries no longer lies within the stacks, it lies with the ability to offer communities direction from, and curation of, information found elsewhere. Part of the mission of the modern library is to offer tools communities can use to enhance their lives and capitalize on ideas and create beautiful things. So, when someone gets an idea, rather than go to a library to research it, they do their own research and go to the library to make their idea a reality.”

Associate Library Director Sofia Birden said she has started preparing her staff to manage the printer. "The staff have been very excited, and a little trepidacious." She is excited the printer has become a part of the library services. Birden said some of the reasons they decided to place the 3D printer in the library included the longer hours the facility was open. The media services department and the library collaborated to have it at the library, because more people were available to use the machine, to train people on the printer and to maintain the equipment. "We already help students and community patrons with computer issues, printer issues, etc. It made sense to put it here."

The first significant test of the 3D printer came when Bernstein printed a large number seven, which was about four inches thick. The process took approximately five hours. As the print head made each pass over the stage within the CubePro, it built a honeycomb structure to provide support for the growing object and to allow the machine to use less material to create the physical number.

"We chose to print the “7” first because it was geometrically simple, and it would be easy to tell if something was going wrong with the print job. Once a 3D printer is up and running, it is quite user friendly, but the initial configuration and calibration is meticulous work, and we needed to be able to see errors and make adjustments quickly."

In another test, Bernstein had the device print a miniature hand. "We chose to print the hand next, because the model was highly detailed, with lots of lines and wrinkles, and we wanted to see whether the printed object would accurately reflect the level of detail in the model. It did. Students who were passing by during the print were transfixed by the spectacle of a realistic hand slowly appearing in front of them. They took a lot of pictures."

The next challenge is a life-size model of a human heart. Once that is successful, the printer should soon become available to the rest of the community.

"The students are extraordinarily excited," Birden said. She said students are planning to print masks and prosthetics for stage productions. Biology students intend to scan and print samples of local wildlife such as a small model of a moose or an enlarged tick. Some community patrons are planning to print prototypes of inventions.

"The more we get it out to our community, we'll get more interest," said Birden.

The list of students, faculty and community members who wish to use the printer is growing, and the library is forming policies to keep the machine safe, functioning, and supplied with "ink". In this case, the "ink" looks like the spools of plastic cord reminiscent of the mono-filament cord that weed wackers use.

The cost of the material is fairly expensive, at 20 cents per gram. A single gram weighs about as much as a small paperclip.

Other UMS librarians are watching how the Blake Library will manage the device as the experts in information technology create pricing, rules, and policies. Birden is making sure that people who use the device respect copyright laws, refrain from using the printer to create dangerous or offensive objects, but also allow patrons to explore the full range of capabilities the 3D printer brings to the region.

Birden points out that the components of dangerous objects, such as weapons, are not obviously dangerous or easy to identify. She said it is much like trying to make sure someone is unable to use other books to do dangerous things, such as a chemistry textbook to create poison. "Do we censor everything until we know everything they could use it for? We are not the police. We want information, knowledge and education to be available to everyone."

If successful at the Blake Library, other UMS libraries may follow UMFK's lead and install their own 3D printers for students, faculty, staff and members of the community.