Libraries, Earl Grey, Hot

For those not familiar with Star Trek this post will look at my experiences purchasing and running a 3D printer in my public library.

Back in July 2013 I acquired funding to purchase a Makerbot Replicator 2 and since September  3D printing services have been available to the public (both members and non-members) with positive results. I’m not going to talk about what a 3D printer is or how it works as there are plenty of resources for all that (or shameless plug: you can come to my workshop at the ALIA National Conference 2014). This is about my personal experience with the device and some handy hints for those in a similar situation.

Setup

Due to a lack of space in my library, it currently isn’t possible to have the printer out on the main floor for people to use by themselves. At the moment, the printer is kept in an existing glass cabinet so clients can watch items being printed.

The existing work flow requires clients to provide .stl files, via email or in person, to the eServices Coordinator (me). I then convert them to .x3g files and provide feedback to clients if required (e.g. split the design, reduce size etc.). Files are then transferred to a flash card, cued up on a simple spreadsheet and manually printed one at a time.

Ideally I’d like a dedicated space to have the printer available for everyone to come in and use as they like. The learning curve for 3D printing can be a little steep, especially if a client only wants to print something small and one-off, but this can be overcome by running education sessions and make attendance a requirement before using the machine.

To do this another issue, access, needs to be addressed and this is something I am still investigating. Some builds can go for 8+ hours, and that’s if they run smoothly the first time. Clients would have to set up their builds and often leave them overnight, which isn’t too much of a problem, as I currently do this. The problems would come from others interfering with unattended builds and builds that run over several days.

If anyone has a great booking management solution for this I’d love to hear it.

Fees

Since the service commenced we have been charging $10 a build; if an item can be printed in one sitting it costs $10 regardless of time or material. We do not charge for failed prints if it is due to operator fault (e.g. filament failure or machine failure). This was chosen to make it easier for desk staff having to deal with payments and a new technology.

I am looking at changing the fee structure to either a per hour cost ($5 for the first hour, $1 for each hour after) or a per-gram cost based on weight of final build. I am still deciding if failures should be charged; in both of these models this can be allowed for either as time or material costs.

Problems and Solutions

Over the past few months I have had to replace almost all the components in the printer that can (and do) go wrong. From what I’ve seen of the newer Replicator 2 models some of the issues I’ve encountered have been dealt with. The new Replicators have very different components (including the print head) so it will be interesting to see if they develop a new set of issues. While I am tempted to get a newer model, I’m hesitant of introducing rev A hardware, especially in a library setting.

Below are just a few of the problems that have caused me the most trouble. Hopefully this will give someone else an easy fix.

Thermocouple

The first part I had to replace was the thermocouple, which seems to be a common problem among Rep 2 models. The thermocouple tells the printer how hot the nozzle is so the printer can regulate temperatures with the fans. Without this the printer will not work and if it’s malfunctioning your printer won’t  reach the correct temperature. This can lead to feed issues. BilbyCNC offer a great fix for this.

Feed Issues

My printer was out of action for three months with this problem, while I waited for a replacement part to ship from Makerbot in the USA. When printing, the filament would start out fine, but as it progressed it would extrude an increasingly thinner stream, eventually stopping and then continuing to air print. Occasionally this was accompanied by a clicking noise.

First, I replaced the drive block, as the spring loaded system I was using had developed a fault. However the problem continued even after installing the new component. Not wanting to remove the nozzle and soak it in acetone overnight I took a chance on this instructable and purchased two reels of 0.26 and 0.4 mm magnet (enamelled copper) wire and after a few passes my printer was working perfectly.

Others

I’ve also replaced/fixed the following. Most of these are common, minor issues or have been fixed by subsequent Rep 2 models:

  • Stepper motor cables (pinching issues near stepper motor)
  • Heater cartridge (doesn’t heat up thermal block)
  • Thermal and ceramic tape (buy some spares, they are very handy to have around)
  • Side fan (loose wire soldered back on)
  • Thermocouple (loose wires on motherboard, re-seated)

If I were to buy a new printer now, I would buy a few of the components listed above (most are under $10 each) to have on hand to make repairs quick and easy.

Where to Buy

If you want to buy a 3D printer in Australia your options seem to be growing as more commercial printers become available. For Makerbots in Australia I would highly recommended BilbyCNC they are very helpful and quite knowledgeable. I recommend getting the Australian maintenance contract with them as it’s quicker than waiting for parts to come from Makerbot in the US.

I purchased my printer from Thinglab, and while they were very friendly I’ve had nothing else to do with them since, choosing to use BilbyCNC for all my supplies and spare parts.

Focusing on the Experience

Recently I’ve been thinking about where to go from here. As fun as 3D printing is, I’m just a little over it (shhh!). After talking with Matt Finch at #VALA14 and listening to his keynote I’m looking at how my library can provide experiences to our clients. Right now I’m providing a 3D printing service. Sure, I make sure to talk with the clients about their file, show them what went wrong, how to improve their designs etc. but really they’re just sending files off and getting a physical object back. There’s no learning and no experience that they can’t get from any online 3D printing store.

Space and, sadly, security being such significant issues, I’m not sure how I can move towards a more involved ‘makerspace’ for my clients. Ideally it would be a space where they can come and learn, as well as print their items themselves; dealing with issues like lack of supports, failed prints, holes in their 3D designs etc. We learn through failure and by taking that learning opportunity away, as happens with the current model, my clients aren’t getting the full learning experience. Sure, there will be many who aren’t interested in that (‘Can you set up an email account for me?’), but I can always team those people up with the more clued in members of my library and they can start helping each other out. That’s how a makerspace works, right?

Does Your Library Need One?

No.

I know that sounds a little counter-intuitive coming from the guy who already has one; but honestly, unless your library has a dedicated area, like a makerspace, it’s probably not going to provide much benefit to your community. You need a place where clients can come in and freely use the equipment, with staff who are knowledgeable and can teach clients how to use equipment and offer advice on design and technique.

If you’re planning to create this kind of space, enabling people to experience things, to learn and to play, then go ahead, but be prepared to put in some effort. 3D printers can facilitate community creativity and growth, but they need support.

Use a 3D printer to focus your community’s creativity, build on it, and help nurture their skills but don’t expect it to solve all your problems.