Libraries show off borrowed printers

If you’re a geek like me, you’ve spent at least a couple of minutes marveling over the abilities of 3D printers. They are truly amazing — they can make food, toys, prosthetics, miniature and working engines, jewelry, art and tools. I’m not a cynic, exactly, but my jaw did drop when I learned that an astronaut was able to “print” a wrench to make a repair on the International Space Station.

“What can they do? Well, 3D printing is only limited by the type of material it uses and your own creativity,” said Patrick Birmingham of the Key West public library. “It’s almost mind boggling.”

He is one of the librarians traveling to the mainland next week to learn how to use a 3D printer, courtesy of the Southwest Florida Library Network. The SWFLN will send two 3D printers back to the Keys to go on a tour with demos in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada.

Birmingham describes himself as a librarian, hobbyist and a bit of a tech nerd with a background in music.

“The printers can make full-sized, working musical instruments,” he said.

His colleague, Kenny Clarke, is a foodie. He spoke with wonder about reading reviews on 3D printed pizza at a recent tech conference. It reminds me of the AutoChef featured in the sci-fi detective novels authored by J.D. Robb — capable of producing coffee, pizza and steak at a push of a button.

“They’ve almost perfected printing glass. They can make food, wood, plastics, clothes … it’s amazing,” Clarke said.

Clarke and Birmingham will be bring back two types of 3D printers. The MakerBot uses a biodegradable plastic material suitable for water bottles and medical devices. The Afinia uses a plastic material that can be used to make Lego blocks or sports equipment.

The printers use CAD (or Computer Aided Design) software to design the engineering specs for pieces created by layering the medium (plastic, powdered food, metals) to build a three-dimensional shape. It’s been described as the opposite of how a sculptor chips away at stone to create a statue. Some printers extrude liquid plastic while others use a laser to fuse materials together.

3D printers cost anywhere from $250 dollars for a toy-like model up to $1 million for commercial applications. The cost is determined by the technology, but also the size of the “build envelope” or how big an item it can produce.

3D printing Demos

The Monroe County library system will be conducting 3D printing demonstrations at three locations in the Keys. The printers will stay at each location for about two weeks, and there is some limited availability for patrons to make use of the printers while on loan. In Key West: on Saturday, Oct. 3 at 3:30 p.m. and on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at 6 p.m.

• Marathon: date TBA

• Islamorada: date TBA 


High school to use 3D printer to make prosthetics

Key West High School is one of the few (if not only) institutions to have a 3D printer in the Florida Keys. It received a $4,000 DeltaMaker 3D printer on a special grant from the Monroe County School District. According to Ed Smith, the TV production teacher, the kids spent the last part of the school year learning how it works by making simple objects such as tripod mounts for cameras.

“Those cost $50 a piece, and we probably lose five a year,” he said, “so we just printed extras.”

This year, the kids are ready to try something much more ambitious — prosthetic limbs for children. Smith said he just returned from a “maker” convention where he learned about Project Enable, a network of organizations that own 3D printers and are willing to produce prosthetic limbs for children. Because children outgrow the devices so fast, they are in constant need. Traditionally made limbs costs tens of thousands to produce, while the materials used for a limb by a 3D printer cost less than $25.

“It’s shockingly inexpensive,” Smith said.

The project will involve students from multiple disciplines. The TV production students will use the CAD design software to size the prosthesis and print it, the health students will help fit them and the art class will be in charge of painting them to look natural.

Smith said Project Enable officials provided the students with a list of about 1,400 children who need the help.

“Most of them are from Miami-Dade County, but a few of those kids are from the Florida Keys,” Smith said, adding he is trying to track the specific children down so the program can begin.

“We hope to have a hand by the end of the next week,” he said. “Getting the pieces together and functional will be a challenge.”

What is the ‘Maker Movement’?

The maker movement is where computer geeks, tinkerers and artists tap into open-source learning, design and powerful personal technology like 3-D printers. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them to proven scientific technique to create something new or create something from scratch.


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Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.