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3-D printer drawing crowds to North Hall Technology Center

POSTED: July 9, 2013 12:30 a.m.

Six months after the North Hall Technology Center got a 3-D printer, it has turned into a local attraction.

“It’s become hugely popular,” said branch manager Al List. “And we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”

The printer is so popular that the technology center has had to limit its use to specific times because there’s not enough staff to handle the demand.

The Makerbot Replicator 2 allows users to “print” almost any 3-D object made of plastic. All it requires is a blueprint file, either created at home or downloaded from the Internet, and spools of plastic material.

It has been available since January and has been used to create a small-scale replica of a Gothic cathedral, a toy video game character, pieces for a model rocket and a replacement bolt for lawn care equipment among many other things, List said.

“You can use it to create almost whatever you want,” he said. “Right now most people want to make toys with it, but that’s not all it is about.

“We had a local inventor create a prototype iPhone case, which cost him about $3 and turned out great. It can be used to create replacement parts that may not be easily available online. There are a lot of possibilities.”

Blueprints can be created with programs such as AutoCAD or can be downloaded from websites such as Thingiverse.com, which contains thousands of user-uploaded designs.

Currently on Thingiverse.com, there are designs for camera tripods, model airplanes, replicas of famous works of art such as the Sphinx, wrenches and other tools, musical instruments and even components for 3-D printers.

The machine works by heating polylactic acid to roughly 446 degrees Fahrenheit and applying it in thin layers to a tray. It builds each layer on top of another until the object is finished.

The polylactic acid is nontoxic, doesn’t produce any fumes, melts at a low temperature, cools instantly and is relatively cheap.

“We only charge 10 cents a gram to cover the costs of materials,” List said. “We don’t make a profit from it.”

The amount of time needed to print an object varies in its size and complexity. Simple objects can take as little as 10 minutes to print while the replica of the Gothic cathedral took about 12 hours.

The technology center can scale blueprints but cannot modify or create them yet. In order to do that, the center needs a computer-aided design program such as AutoCAD.

“We don’t have AutoCAD yet, but we are hoping that we can fit it into our next budget,” List said.

He hopes that schools will take advantage of the printer for projects and field trips. While a few classes have come for tours, summer vacation prevented many from visiting.

“We’ve done a few tours, but there are a lot of school classes already planning to come at the beginning of the school year,” List said. “We wanted to be a different kind of library. Our main thing is educating people about technology.”

The printer is available from 2-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays or by appointment.


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