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Making More Out of the Library

By Ashley McLeod, The Hopewell News

CHESTERFIELD — The back room in the Central Library holds a machine that once was only imagined in the pages of science fiction. Now, they are becoming commonplace.

This technology uses plastic to create a variety of usable objects, such as shoes, clothing, guns, musical instruments, camera lenses, simple toys or figurines, working prosthetics, and even houses.

Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as three-dimensional printing, began in the 1980s using a photo-hardening polymer to create three-dimensional plastic models. The first object created with this technology was a tiny cup that could be used as an eye wash, printed by Chuck Hull of 3D Systems, the company credited with creating this technology.

3D printing is a not so complicated concept.

Using a computer, a design is created for whatever it is that you want to print. The design is put into a program that turns it into a sort of blueprint that can be read by the printer. After the design is ready, you simply load it onto a storage card, which can then be inserted into the printer.

Then, the printer begins its work.

“The easy way to look at it is that is nothing more than a glorified hot glue gun,” said Bruce “Doc” Davies, a retired biochemist who volunteers at the library with the Maker Space program, which houses the 3D printer at the library.

3D printing begins with a roll of plastic filament about three millimeters in diameter that is fed into the printer. The filament is fed into the machine and down into the part of the printer called the hot head. Rotors inside of the head force the plastic down into the hot end of the machine. The hot end is usually around 230 degrees Celsius or higher, so when the plastic hits the hot end, the plastic melts and by using pressure is extruded into a fine layer of filament that comes out onto the bed of the machine.

“If you’re not careful, you can walk away with a really bad burn,” said Davies.

But a 3D printer does not actually print in 3D.

“In reality, it’s not really printing in 3D. It prints in a two-dimensional configuration at first and generates the 3D by building up layer upon layer,” said Davies.

This is called slicing, and uses a computer to measure the layers and split them up.

“This process draws a line as thin as the filament and extracts each layer of the object. The printer prints one slice of the object at a time,” said Davies.

The printing process forces a small layer of the plastic out, and with each layer of plastic, the bed of the printer will move a small amount so that the plastic is pushed out layer by layer, one on top of the other.

Eventually the printer finishes each tiny layer, forming a final product.

Depending on the object being printed, the process can take a long time to finish.

“3D printing is actually one of the most wonderful technologies ever worked with, but it takes a lot of time,” said Davies. “We print 3D printed prosthetic hands in this facility, and some of them can easily take 18 hours to print.”

Each layer is almost paper thin in order to make the surface of the product smooth. You can quicken the process with the computer software by changing the resolution of the project, but the surface of the object will not be as smooth, and you will be able to see each layer of the printing.

The library has PLA filaments used for the 3D printer, which is one of the best filaments used in the MakerBot 3D printer used by the library. Also known as polylactic acid, the filaments are made from plant products, and they are one of the more earth-friendly plastics. The filaments also come in a large variety of colors.

The 3D printer at the library’s Maker Space is open to use for anyone who has a library card. Before being allowed to use the printer, you must take a safety course at the library, which teaches you the proper procedures for using the printer.

The 3D printer is used as a part of the Maker Space program, which is a non-profit organization started to help promote STEM research and education. The hands on program includes robotics, programming, cybersecurity, bio-medical engineering, drones, and 3D printing.

The Maker Space group meets Wednesdays from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the Central Library located on Route 10 and Lori Road.