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Vol. 20 No. 7 — October 2012
Make to Learn: Libraries and the Maker Movement
by Irene E. McDermott, Reference Librarian/Systems Manager, Crowell Public Library, City of San Marino

Man, this recession is persistent. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, except for those with a college degree and, interestingly, those with high-level manufacturing skills. Brett Guge, executive vice president at California Steel Industries in Fontana, Calif., said recently that he can’t fill his skilled manufacturing jobs, which require 2 years of specialized training along with the ability to read, write, and do math. Software and renewable energy companies are also looking for skilled help. “Everyone’s vying for the same talent,” says Menlo Park recruiter Shannon Callahan. “They’re all trying to build … the next great product” (Lopez, Ricardo. “Jobs for Skilled Workers Are Going Unfilled,” The Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2012; web, Aug. 11, 2012 []).

How can libraries help? Certainly, we can offer internet access to college courses, proctor distance education tests and maybe … Wait. Can we have a role in helping our patrons learn how to run new, computerized manufacturing equipment? Or to help them bring their own ideas for new products to life?

Travis Good thinks that we can. In his 2012 ALA virtual presentation keynote speech “What’s a Makerspace and Why Should Libraries Care?” [], Good, an editor at Make magazine, describes his recent experiences visiting “makerspaces” around the country. A makerspace is a shop outfitted with new “CNC” (Computer Numerically Controlled) tools that can translate patterns or scans stored on a desktop computer into complex, 3D objects. He believes that these easy-to-use devices can bring a resurgence of manufacturing productivity to our listless economy. He suggests that libraries can make it part of their mission to host training for these new tools to help patrons prepare for skilled jobs and even to bring their prototypes to market.

The Tools of Makerspace

Good described some of the “intelligent tools” often found in a makerspace. There are tools that cut away material such as laser cutters (for 2D) as well as CNC mills and 3-and 5-axis routers. Then there are 3D printers, which use an additive process to build 3D objects layer by layer, usually out of extruded plastic.

As they evolve, these machines are getting smaller and can now often fit on a desktop. These machines are getting cheaper too and often run on open source software and patterns. In the spirit of DIY (“Do It Yourself”), some of these machines are sold as kits, letting makers make their own tools!

Mantis 9.1 CNC Mill: Make Your Bot!

Here are plans and instructions for assembling a 3-axis CNC router with parts that you can make or buy. The cost ranges from $100 to $300.

Prusa Mendel 3D Printer Kit

“3D printers are all the rage,” Good says. He mentioned that some can even print with metals or ceramics. However, a modest desktop model only prints with plastic. For about $800, makers can buy this kit to assemble their own 3D printer.

Makerbot Replicator

Many makerspaces use the pre-assembled Makerbot for their 3D printing needs. Bre Pettis, CEO and co-founder of MakerBot Industries, explains the process: “The MakerBot replicator uses one of two plastics. You can either make things in ABS plastic, which is what LEGO is made out of, or you can use PLA, which is the plastic that’s made from corn. And then you get your plastic on spools, and it kind of looks like a big spool of spaghetti.” Makerbots run about $2,000(but there is free shipping).


Here is a brand of open source 3D printer newly developed by Diego Porqueras of Pasadena, Calif. He offers printers designed for a range of users, from students to advanced devotees. One “green” version only uses the PLA plastic, the biodegradable material made of corn starch. “PLA even gives off a soft burnt popcorn smell while printing,” Porqueras notes. His printers cost between $485 and $2,000.


From Brooklyn’s “Silicon Alley” comes Sam Cervantes, who has created a fully functioning budget 3D printer that can create small objects up to 6x6x6 inches. It costs only $500.

Hobby CO2 Lasers

Laser cutters are now the most expensive piece of equipment in the makerspace. Full Spectrum Laser of Las Vegas offers this desktop “hobby laser” from $1,850 to $3,500. Laser cutters work in 2D, either engraving flat materials or cutting them for assembly into 3D objects.

Good was most impressed with the laser cutter, as it al-lowed him to construct and elaborately engrave a wooden box in one sitting. “I can learn and produce quickly and get a sense of accomplishment and then move on and improve my skill,” he said.

Smart Materials

“It used to be, when you wanted to put smarts into some-thing, you had to use a computer,” Good said. These days, he notes, you use a microcontroller. The favorite one among amateur makers is an Italian brand: Arduino.


This open source microprocessor makes objects interactive. It takes input from the environment (temperature, the presence of light or movement) and then responds by flip-ping a switch, turning on a relay, or lighting a sign. The board is inexpensive, costing less than $50. It can run on Mac OS, Windows, or Linux. It is simple for beginners to learn how to program, yet its code is extensible and can be expanded through C++ libraries. It has become such a standard in maker circles than any microprocessor is now referred to as an “Arduino.”


This Boulder, Colo., company makes and sells the Lilipad Arduino, a flexible minicontroller designed to be installed in a fabric object. Designed by Leah Buechley, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, this flexible microprocessor can even be put through the washing machine. (Buechley made a “Turn Signal Bike Jacket” with it: The Lilipad Arduino costs between $10 and $30, depending on complexity. SparkFun also sells plenty of other helpful electronic bits and pieces. “Whether it’s a robot that can cook your breakfast or a GPS cat tracking device,” according to its website, “our products and resources are designed to make the world of electronics more accessible to the average person.” SparkFun offers online tutorials too.


“It is easy to learn how to use these controllers,” says Good. “Even kids can do it.” They sure can with a kit from littleBits. On these microprocessor boards, each color is an input, a processor, or an output. The parts snap together and in only one way so that it is impossible for inexperienced users to make a mistake. Kids can prototype systems without worrying that they will damage the parts by lack of knowledge. littleBits are pricier than the plain Arduino. A starter kit costs almost $90.

Software, Patterns, and Ideas

Makers power their magic machines with open source software and patterns from these sources.

Makerbot Industries sponsors this repository of freely available .stl (STereoLithography) files that can be down-loaded for use with 3D printers. Use them as is or modify them. Did you develop your own design? Upload it to share with other makers!


Perhaps you would like to try your hand at designing a3D object from scratch. Just download Blender, a free 3D Design program compiled by Dutch animation programmer Ton Roosendaal. It works on Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and even FreeBSD, which is similar to UNIX. This is a full-featured rendering and design product, but, like many open source applications, it has a steep learning curve.


From Helsinki comes this simple, free, web-based design tool meant to help beginners make their first 3D patterns. The results can be downloaded directly to 3D printers. Or, you can send them off to a 3D printing place and have the resulting object delivered by mail.

Autodesk 123D Gallery

To me, since I have neither artistic training nor particular visual talent, the design process would be more difficult than the hands-on fabrication and assembly of an object. Autodesk Inc. offers extraordinary free apps to assist with the process. It offers a “Sculpt” app for the iPad that manipulates photos to look like Claymation (but it charges a fee to export the images to another device). The “123Make” app for Mac OS or PCs (or online) breaks down images of 3D objects into planes for easy printing and reassembly into 3D models. “123D” is a 3D modeling program for Windows only. Finally, “123D Catch” for iPad, Windows, or the web allows users to upload photos for conversion into a 3D design.


Need more project ideas? This site is a good place to find them, along with, yes, instructions on how to complete them. Once you develop some designs of your own, upload them to Instructables for sharing.

Who Is Doing This?

The local community Maker Movement is thriving across the nation and around the world under the auspices of several organizations. Some are stand-alone clubs for adults. Others groups work primarily with schools. Examples of groups oriented to school kids include Make to Learn [] and SparkTruck [], which is a brainchild of students from the Institute of Design at Stanford. Use these directories to find local makerspace groups.

Maker Community Groups and Spaces

O'Reilly Publishers in Sebastopol, Calif., has an entire division called simply MAKE. It publishes Make magazine [], maintains a blog [], sponsors Maker Faires [] and Maker Camps [], and provides this directory of makerspaces in the U.S. and Canada.

Makerspace Directory

Dale Dougherty of O’Reilly Media in collaboration with Saul Griffith of Otherlab [] provides this list of makerspaces in the U.S.

Fablab List

MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms sponsors a network of “Fab” (fabrication) labs around the world that operate on the same principle as O’Reilly’s makerspaces. Find American Fab Labs here, or locate some in Kenya or Peru.

How Can Libraries Get Involved?

Good suggested that libraries should assess their community needs before offering makerspace activities. Would your patrons benefit from learning about computer-assisted design and machining?

When I described the possibility of developing library makerspaces to my colleague Jeff Plumley, who is a skilled woodworker in addition to being a reference librarian, his eyes lit up with excitement. But then he stopped. “How can you have power tools in the library?” he asked.

It turns out that most makerspaces are divided into a “dirty shop,” with traditional sawdust-generating tools, and a “clean lab” area for electronics and crafts, activities that don't generate a lot of noise or mess. Today’s libraries can offer infrastructure support for many clean lab activities, including computers, internet access, training areas, and just the meeting space itself, according to Good.

Good suggests that interested libraries should meet with their local maker groups to form a collaboration. Libraries could host simple, clean maker activities to whet the com-munity’s appetite for making things. Examples include making a “Blinky” pin with alternatingly lighting LED eyes. Longer-term classes could teach the use of Arduino controllers. More extensive programs could guide students from concept to design to the actual making of an object.

TekVenture Make Station

In this example of library/makerspace collaboration, the Allen County Public Library in Ft. Wayne, Ind., hosts its local maker group in a trailer in the parking lot! Members of TekVenture, a local maker group, hold weekly workshops and work on projects. They use 3D printers and milling machines, a laser cutter, and a vacuum former to design objects and then create them. Some demonstrations and activities are open to all library patrons. Because the tools are in a trailer, the noise and the mess stay outside of the quiet, clean library.

Can more libraries incorporate makerspaces to help patrons prepare for the future? Travis Good offers this advice to libraries as well as makers: “Model something and then make it real.”


Cornell professor Hod Lipson believes that 3D printing has the power to change the current model of manufacturing and distributing goods. “Just as personal computers have dramatically changed everyday life, 3D printers will profoundly affect how products are made, designed and consumed.”

Cheap 3D printers offer democratization of design and fabrication comparable to the transition from main-frame computers to desktop PCs, Lipson believes. “We were looking to try to create that revolution with a desktop 3D printer that anybody can buy, and more importantly, anybody can hack and play around with and put new materials in.”

Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, agrees. “Manufacturing may occur across the street or in your neighborhood.” 3D printing, he believes, will bring “manufacturing much closer to you and decentralize it.” This is as opposed to the current model, which produces millions of copies of objects for shipment around the world, with “half of the product going to the landfill because there’s not an appetite for that particular product” (“Can 3D Printers Reshape the World?” “Talk of the Nation,” NPR, June 22, 2012 []).

What sort of things can be made with 3D printers? Here are some examples.

Personalised Superhero Action Figures

For $125, London’s will turn you into a superhero. Just send two headshots, one from the front and a profile. “Using advanced 3D printing technology your photographs will be turned into a fully-formed 3D version of your noggin — including eye colour, skin tone, hair style (or as close as possible) and hair colour.” The head is sized to perfectly fit onto the superhero action figure included in the order.

Cornucopia: Prototypes and Concept Designs for a Digital Gastronomy

You can’t buy them yet, but MIT is prototyping 3D printers of food. The yummiest project is The Digital Chocolatier, which builds up layers of candy to concoct delicious treats. Cornell University is also working on the printing of food products with its multi-material 3D printer called Fab@Home [], which is also still in the prototype phase. It’s coming, though.

Anthony Atala: Printing a Human Kidney

Surgeon Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine introduces us to the world of bioprinting. In his TED talk, Atala describes how his lab is using scanners and 3D printers to generate new organs from a patient's own cells, often on a scaffold of biomaterial. He demonstrates onstage the printing of a kidney, which unfortunately, is not yet ready for use in a clinical setting.

The World’s First 3D-Printed Gun

Why should 3D printing only be used to save lives? Amateur gunsmith Michael Guslick, who calls himself “HaveBlue” on the AR-15 forum [], has printed and successfully tested a lower receiver for a semi-assault rifle, the same model used in the Aurora, Colo., massacre by alleged gunman James Holmes. “While this pistol obviously wasn’t created from scratch using a 3D printer,” writes Extreme Tech blogger Sebastian Anthony, “the interesting thing is that the lower receiver — in a legal sense at least — is what actually constitutes a firearm. Without a lower receiver, the gun would not work; thus, the receiver is the actual legally-controlled part.” For good or ill, Guslick has uploaded his 3D printer files to for general distribution [].

Irene McDermott's ( home in Pasadena, Calif., definitely counts as an old-fashioned “dirty shop.”

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