Makerbot Replicator 2: 3D Printing Tips From an Early Adopter
by Emily Thompson
3D printers are all the rage in public libraries, but they are just starting to creep into the academic sphere. At Penfield Library, which is at the State University of New York (SUNY)–Oswego, we have set up a successful 3D printing program using a MakerBot Replicator 2.
|The first student print was a snake skull for a zoology student.
SUNY–Oswego is a comprehensive 4-year college on the shore of Lake Ontario. Most of our students are undergraduates, but we offer a few master’s programs. Our engineering program is just getting started, and it currently only has courses in software and electrical engineering. We have a robust technology program, which is part of the university’s School of Education. Both the engineering and technology programs have their own 3D printers; however, students must be a part of those programs to use them. The 3D printer at Penfield Library is open to all.
How We Got the Funds
In November 2012, we applied for a Technology Initiative Project (TIP) Grant. This grant is supported by our Campus Technology Advisory Board (CTAB) and funds “academic initiatives that relate to instruction, student usage, improving student usage, and/or improving student learning through the use of technology.” Examples of projects this grant has funded include a pilot program for LyndaCampus, an iClicker system, and other software to enhance individual departments. In our proposal, we emphasized that although the other departments already had 3D printers, having one in the library would give all of SUNY–Oswego’s students a chance to try out a new and transformative technology. To demonstrate why this technology should be available to anyone, not just to students in particular departments, the learning technologies librarian (LTL) sought out faculty members from across the campus to give short statements about how they would use the library’s 3D printer. These included a biology professor who said her students could use it to print replicas of animal skulls, a psychology professor who wanted his human factors students to redesign eating utensils, and an art professor who wanted to use it to enhance her sculpture classes.
We were awarded the grant in January 2013. The grant provided a MakerBot Replicator 2, a kitchen scale, and six rolls of filament—one of each color available at the time. The machine arrived in late February (well ahead of the promised shipping date), which gave the LTL approximately a month to learn how to use it before the service was implemented, just after spring break.
What users of the library’s 3D printer had to say.
Setting Use Policy
While the grant was wending its way through the approval process, the LTL, Penfield’s director, and the learning commons coordinator worked on policies and pricing. We decided that we would charge 20 cents per gram for finished prints. At the time, a 1 kg roll cost $48, so we would be making enough to cover the costs of new filament and any repairs or maintenance needed. Additionally, we opened the service to anyone, with priority given to students, faculty, staff, and community members. Finally, we asked that users adhere to copyright and trademark restrictions.
Because this was around the time that Cody Wilson was getting a lot of publicity for creating the first successful 3D-printed firearm, we declared that we would not print guns or gun parts. While this does restrict some of the printing, it also means that we do not have to worry about regulations for manufacturing guns or prop guns. By putting this policy on the form, we have not had any requests for firearms and all of the patrons who ask at the desk usually nod and say, “Well, that’s understandable.”
How Requests Are Handled
To make a request, patrons have to fill out a form and send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a file attached. The LTL (or other librarian) downloads the file and puts the object into MakerWare, a free software that talks to the printer. The librarian can choose whether or not to print a raft (flat layer of plastic printed before the object) and/or supports (vertical, removable structures that support the print). MakerWare can also scale the object up or down.
The email contains any extra instructions or questions and the file a patron would like to have printed. It also gives the librarian doing the printing a way to ask questions and get clarifications before printing objects. This has proven most helpful for .stl files that are very large when put into MakerWare. For example, one patron wanted a castle that appeared to be approximately 2' long and 1' tall, which is more than the build capabilities of the Replicator 2. The librarian was able to email the patron who clarified that he thought it was much smaller. We scaled it down, and the patron left happy.
All printing requests must be done via the form. The finished prints can be picked up and paid for at the checkout desk. While we don’t allow patrons to use the machine independently, if they would like to watch their object being printed, the LTL does her best to set up an appointment. In general, we find that the printer is fascinating for about 15 minutes, and then it gets repetitive. Patrons appreciate the fact that they can pick items up later.
The printer is set up in an office suite on the second floor that has a glass wall separating it from a well-used group study area. The door is unlocked when librarians are working, and the 3D printer generates a quite a lot of foot traffic. The LTL’s office is in the suite, so she can field questions from the occasional, curious student. Additionally, she can hear if something goes wrong and come out and check on the machine.
How Is It Being Used?
So far, the machine has been used by students across disciplines. The first student print was a snake skull for a zoology student. We have also had business students printing objects to evaluate the MakerBot company’s potential for investment, set design students printing models, graphic design students printing game models, and a few students exploring prototypes for future production. Most recently, one of the technology students had to use our printer because the department ones were down.
Outside of formal assignments, students have printed props for film projects, geese to send around the world (a la the Travelocity gnome), an army of squirrels in school colors, and a lovely set of claws. The majority of the prints fall squarely in the “I just wanted to try it out” category, but that was one of our goals from the start. Every cellphone case printed goes to a potential inventor who never thought she could make something like that.
Recently, faculty members have started to think more about how they can use the printer with their classes or for their research. The LTL has been fielding appointment requests, and we are optimistic we will see more “academic” use of the printer in the near future. In the meantime, students are making knickknacks and becoming familiar with the process. The printer is in near-constant use, and students are doing an excellent job of word-of-mouth marketing.
You’ll need to order various colors of filament and price prints to cover supply replacement and equipment maintenance.
While the MakerBot is relatively easy to use, it is not designed for the complete novice. It is a plug-and-play machine, but the build plate must be leveled every time. Additionally, it needs to be taken apart and put back together on a fairly regular basis. This is not difficult (it’s reminiscent of oiling a sewing machine), and the manufacturer provides excellent illustrated instructions as well as wonderful tech support. Someone has to be willing to be the on-site repair person.
The 20 cents per gram is more than enough to cover cost of new supplies. While it may seem like a lot, it has allowed us to expand our color selection as new PLA colors come out and covers repairs and supplies (drive shaft pieces and grease, etc). It also meant we did not have to change our price when MakerBot raised the price of translucent colors to $65 for a 1kg roll. Additionally, we were charging for rafts in the beginning, and we no longer have to do so. We do still charge for supports, but only because they can be delicate and we feel it is better for the patrons to remove them themselves.
While the machine does not need constant supervision, it does need monitoring. As mentioned previously, the LTL has found that it is most useful to be able to hear the machine. The most common printing problem results from twisted filament. When the drive shaft is having trouble drawing filament from the spool, it makes a specific noise. If not tended to immediately, the filament can break or pull the drive shaft off the rails. Breakage is much more common and results in waste since it is impossible to start a print in the middle. The one time it pulled the drive shaft out of place, it only took a couple of turns to get the screws back in the correct place, but it looked much worse.
The MakerBot comes with an SD card slot, but we have found it more reliable to print via a USB cable connected to a computer. For some reason, it seems to take two tries to get a readable file onto the SD card (possibly due to operator error). The USB connection always works and provides a computer for some basic editing and demonstrations. However, the printer does not know what to do if the computer turns off. Case in point, we had set the machine on “Cold Pause” and left for the evening. At some point, the computer updated Windows. This restarted the computer and the MakerWare software, and we had to start the print over. In the most extreme case, the LTL had gone to teach a class while a large build was on the machine. The computer’s screen saver came on, and then the computer shut off, causing the printer to stop. Unfortunately, it did not send the extruder to its home, it left it where it was: a 230-degree-Celsius tip touching a half-printed goose. Fortunately, another librarian noticed the problem and alerted the LTL, who turned off the machine. Now all of the librarians in the office suite know where the off switch is. We have now set the computer to never turn off, and Windows must be updated manually.
To help close the knowledge gap between thingiverse.com (a website where 3D designs are shared) and full 3D modeling, we added a MakerBot Digitizer 3D scanner in October. The goal was to give patrons the ability to model their own design. It has not had a lot of use yet, but that’s probably due to the fact that we haven’t promoted its availability. Its most popular use so far has been scanning parts to other machines in the hopes that we could print new ones. Sadly, many of these parts have been too small or too dark to get a really good scan. However, every time the manufacturer updates the software it gets a little better. We do not charge for scanning, but the patrons do need to make an appointment with the LTL since it takes between 10 and 30 minutes to get a scan.
In addition to a 3D printer, you may also need a digitizer to facilitate model creation.
Campus Technology Advisory Group. (Oct. 12, 2012). Technology Initiative Project (TIP) Grants . State University of New York (SUNY)–Oswego, Oswego, N.Y.
Greenberg, A. (2013). “Meet the ‘Liberator’: Test-Firing the World’s First Fully 3D-Printed Gun.” Forbes . Retrieved from forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2013/05/05/meet-the-liberator-test-firing -the-worlds-first-fully-3d-printed-gun.
Thompson, E. (2013–2014). “MakerBot 3D Printing Survey.” Data collected at the State University of New York (SUNY)–Oswego, Oswego, N.Y.
Emily Thompson has been the learning technologies librarian at the State University of New York (SUNY)–Oswego since 2011. Her job entails finding new technology and teaching students how to use it. Originally from Montana, she spent time as a costume designer and as an English teacher in Asia before getting her M.S.I. from the University of Michigan in 2011.