Library expands campus access to 3D printers

September 27, 2013
A 3D object on the Cube

The 3D Lab, part of the University of Michigan Library’s Digital Media Commons on north campus, is expanding campus access to 3D printers thanks to a grant from the university’s Third Century Initiative.

Six Cube printers currently reside in the 3D Lab, located in the Duderstadt Center, along with free material, tutorials, and support for those ready to experiment. In the next few weeks, the Cube printers will relocate to other spaces around the Duderstadt Center, and early next year they will be made available on central campus.

Anyone in the university community can access the printers, materials, and support to create their own 3-dimensional objects from digital designs. "It's an amazing feeling to go from curiosity to design to holding a physical object in your hand,” says Eric Maslowski, manager of the 3D Lab. “But right now there is an educational gap between theory and application, and our goal is to bridge that gap.”

The Third Century Initiative grant is designed to do just that. The initiative’s plan is to develop innovative, multidisciplinary approaches to teaching and scholarship, with the goal of stimulating creative thinking among students and faculty and to develop programs that intensify learning experiences beyond the classroom. Grants are awarded for the most exciting and innovative ideas from across campus to enhance action-based, experiential learning.

The Cube looks fairly inconspicuous; it’s a small machine, but it offers a world of possibilities in do-it-yourself 3D printing. Marketed as an at-home desktop machine, it prints like many rapid prototyping machines do: it extrudes melted plastic through a print head to build up the printed part layer by layer, and provides a quick and inexpensive way to produce objects.

According to Maslowski, the Cube can print just about any 3D item, from the size of a dime to 5.5 square inches—for example, a case for a smart phone or other device, a sculpture, jewelry, or a miniature model of a dog. U-M researchers have used 3D printers for rapid prototyping to develop medical simulation devices, wind turbines, airplane parts, and much more.

“The printers are not difficult to use; the secret lies in creating content,” says Maslowski. The Cube prints from a 3D file – specifically, STL files, which are widely used for rapid prototyping and computer-aided manufacturing. They can be exported from many engineering and artistic software applications, including CAD, modeling, and animation software.

Maslowski says that he’s learned to keep an open mind about who might show up to use the printers. “We’ve had people from mechanical engineering, biomedical engineering, medicine, paleontology, art and design, architecture, and more. It will be interesting to watch as new audiences discover the Cubes.”

“The small size and low cost of using a Cube allows for iterative design, so you can draw a 3D sketch, print it, refine it, print it, refine it, and then go for higher fidelity on a more expensive machine.”

For example, sculptors can create a wax model, scan it to a digital file, and print at a reduced size to fine tune the design before casting. This ability to resize can have other advantages: the artist that created a bust of Bo Schembechler for the athletic department used a 3D printer to make smaller keepsake versions for donors. He estimates that it saved him a month’s worth of remodeling.

To take advantage of the newly expanded access to 3D printing, bring an STL file (your own design, or you can download one from Thingiverse) to the 3D Lab.

Free materials are available from the 3D Lab on a first-come, first-served basis to encourage initial use and experimentation, after which you must BYOC (bring your own cartridge). Cartridges of ABS and PLA plastic in various colors can be purchased online (the cost is $50), and each contains enough material to print 8-10 mid-sized parts—about the size of an iPhone case.

A series of how-to videos gives step-by-step instructions, and 3D Lab staff are available to answer questions and give one-on-one consultations; hours are Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Saturday 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Page maintained by Mary Claire Morris
Last modified: 09/27/2013