So You Got a 3D Printer. Now What?

Maker spaces and interactive creation experiences are one of the most common trends in library services, and 3D printers are often seen as the poster child of this new movement. While devices can range in size, cost, and complexity, most models owned by libraries are pretty similar. The printer extrudes plastic filament to make a physical replica of a design made on a computer. Because of the increasing value of STEM programming, many a teen services staff has found themselves with a 3D printer and little idea of how to program with it.

But no fear! TSU is here to help. Here are some handy tips on how to rock out your new 3D printing doodad. (I like to talk like a technologically-inexperienced person from the 1930s, so get ready for some goofy words.)

Play around!

If you’re going to become familiar enough with your new gizmo, you’re going to need to spend some quality time with it. Set up your own personal account with the free online 3D design platform TinkerCAD. (They have great tutorials that you should can take yourself and incorporate into future programs. The tutorials will walk them through the basics while you help anyone who needs it.) Make builds of anything that comes to mind and print them out. Play around with the tools on there, and customize free models that you download from the 3D-model sharing site Thingiverse. Make things you will actually use, like game pieces (customized dice, chess pieces, D&D miniatures, etc.), jewelry, or even household items. (My colleague Trixie even used our 3D printer to replace some broken brackets for the blinds in her home.) All this quality time will let you get close and intimate with your new contraption, which will definitely help when it malfunctions in the future. (Trust me: your machine will go wonky, and you don’t want your first time dealing with that to be in the middle of a program.) Playing around can also give you ideas for future programs.

Show it off!

Maker tools and products should be made as open and accessible as possible. There shouldn’t be hurdles for library users to see or learn about these tools. If possible, keep your 3D printing thingamabob in a public (but still supervised) area, and print your jobs when patrons are around! (Printing can get kind of noisy, so don’t put it in your quiet study area.) They’ll see it working and stick around to ask questions. Many people have heard about 3D hoozits, but haven’t seen them in action. It’s a great conversation starter for all the different services the library offers, as well as a way to promote upcoming 3D doodad programs. (“You can actually design and print your own item at our program next week!”) And don’t feel like the printer needs to stay inside the library, either. It can make its way to various outreach events, from school visits to Rotary Club meetings, as a way to promote the expanding mission and services of the library. Speaking of which…


Partner up!

All libraries should be a bridge between those with information and those who seek it, and these doohickeys are no exception. Find hobbyists, makers, and community businesses involved in 3D printing to share their experiences and knowledge with your staff and users. We are lucky enough to have a well-known 3D printing hobbyist in our library’s IT department, as well as a staff member’s spouse who sells 3D printers and volunteers with an organization that makes 3D-printed prosthesis. Find those experts and enthusiasts in your immediate community, or bring them to your users virtually.

3D printers have applications in the classroom and provide a unique opportunity to go beyond mere outreach to full partnerships with area schools. The teen department I work in recently partnered with an area middle school on a 3D printing and design class. Students visited the library for field trips or assignments (new teens in the library – yay!), and the library provided help with research skills and access to 3D printing tools.

Have a goal!

Abstract programs like “Learn to use a 3D printer!” are often hard for teens to get excited about. It’s always a good idea to have a clear goal or project for teens to make, with enough scaffolding for them to play and explore. These have included a program where teens used TinkerCAD to customize a guitar pick. Our drop-in DIY kit last month let teens customize their own personalized bookmarks. (We also gave away an ARC with each one so they’d have something to use their project with. And so we could clean off our ARC shelf.) In both cases, we started with a basic template of the project for teens to customize and make personal. When there’s a clear project for teens to working on, yet still enough leeway for them to go in their own direction and have unguided tinkering, they are more engaged and able to learn. Those 3D printing contraptions will no longer seem so unapproachable, for you or them.



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