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You name it, it can print it in 3-D
Makerbot can create models for school projects, among other uses
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Complex objects, such as this cathedral model, can take as long as 12 hours for the 3-D printer to produce. - photo by Tom Reed

The “technology petting zoo” at the North Hall Technology Center welcomed a new feature this week: The Makerbot Replicator 2.

If the name of the device seems like something you’d read about in a science fiction novel, wait until you find out what it can do.

The replicator is essentially a 3-D printer. It is able to “print” just about any object designed with the right kind of graphic software.

The replicator creates objects using spools of wire made from polylactic acid. The replicator’s head heats up to about 230 degrees and melts the plastic wires.

Using a template from graphic software like AutoCAD, the melted plastic is applied in layers to a flat tray. The object is built layer by thin layer to form the object in surprising detail.

Several premade templates are available online at Thingiverse.com that can be used to create objects with the printer.

Al List, branch manager of the North Hall Technology Center, demonstrated how the replicator works by loading the template of a simple hair comb. Only a faint scent of plastic could be sensed just above the machine while it worked. After about 10 minutes, the comb was finished.

The amount of time an object takes to print varies on its size and density. A model of a Gothic cathedral took approximately 12 hours to produce, while simple items take only minutes. The library will charge 10 cents per gram for printed objects to recover the cost of the plastic used.

The North Hall library branch is the first in the county to offer public 3-D printing.

While the technology has been used on a larger scale for years at manufacturing plants, this device is small enough and cheap enough for public use.

“They’ve been around for a while now but they’ve finally got down to a price where schools and libraries can purchase them,” List said.

The replicator cost the library $2,700, paid for through the system’s equipment budget.

Hall County Library System director Adrian Mixson said the decision to purchase the replicator seemed natural given the focus of the technology center, which opened in November.

The cost is comparable to and less than some other technology pieces in the center, including computers and a tabletop touch-screen computer.

“This is truly unique,” Mixson said. “That little lab over there has some good quality equipment. You won’t be stumbled by the capability of the computers themselves.”

He said technology is the direction public libraries will be taking in the future. The technology offered at the center will continue to grow, and one day will boast high-tech video and audio editing software.

“This is a tech center that is pretty high-tech,” Mixson said. “This is where we should be going.”

The replicator can be used for myriad projects and objects. It can easily create specific bolts or broken pieces of appliances. Models of buildings, bones or even toys can be made using the printer.

Mixson said he expects the replicator to primarily be used by children for school projects. Students can use the printer to make scale models of planets, molecules, animals or bones, whatever they might want to create.

“If you’re looking to do a science fair project or a homework assignment, this will take it to the next step,” Mixson said.

Area architects have already contacted the library about using the printer to create models of buildings.

Chasity Griffin, a fifth-grade student at Sardis Enrichment School visited the library Thursday with her mother Linda Griffin. She said she was impressed with the printer and wouldn’t mind having one at home.

Linda Griffin said they’ll be back to use the printer when the her daughter gets another homework assignment.

She said she wished it had been available a few weeks ago when her daughter was working on a lesson about polar bears.

“Sometimes it’s hard to find exactly what you need,” Griffin said. “But this way you can just make it how you need it.”

Which is exactly what the library had in mind for the machine.

Mixson said having this technology available to students will fit in naturally with what students are learning in the classroom.

“It’s a good opportunity for kids to expand their horizons and occasionally maybe an adult can figure out how to use it as well,” Mixson said.

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