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3-D printers debut at Chicago library; future uses still to be imagined

Christopher Borrelli

July 9, 2013

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Welcome to the dawn of 3-D printing.

As with the dawn of the computer, the dawn of the telephone and the dawn of the television, expect a period of confusion: What is 3-D printing, you will wonder. (Answer: The printing of solid objects, often from a square machine that drops liquid plastic through a heated nozzle onto a flat surface, layer upon layer until an object forms.) What are the ramifications of this technology, you will wonder. (Answer: Still unknown.)

As with those other emerging technologies, also expect a period of excitement and opportunity: For instance, this week at McCormick Place there is Inside 3D Printing, a trade show for the burgeoning printed-object industry. And 3D Printer Experience, Chicago's first commercial 3-D print shop, recently opened on North Clark Street.

As for everyday use: Architects now routinely print small plastic objects (think fences, furniture) to complement their scale model buildings (as do set designers for film and theater). At the Art Institute of Chicago, Liz Neely, director of digital information and access (and proud owner of a personal 3-D printer), said the museum's curators have started to think about using its 3-D printers to plan the layout of their exhibitions.

"The 3-D printer means nothing less than the ability to think of something, then create that thing," she said.

Heady days!

"I'm going to print an octopus," said librarian John Christensen. This was Monday morning at the Harold Washington Library Center. Christensen was demonstrating for me one of the 3-D printers the library recently acquired for its Maker Lab, a kind of pop-up tech space on the third floor. Here, for six months, the Chicago Public Library system will test the public viability of the 3-D printer, allowing patrons full access to its trio of 3-D printers. Within limits: "We don't want people printing weapons or anything offensive, of course," said Mark Andersen, who runs the system's business, science and technology division. (Use of a MakerBot Replicator 2 is free, but librarians must approve whatever you design.)

Christensen leaned over the square, bulky, unsexy MakerBot. He squirted hair spray on the flat surface where the machine builds its objects.

"Hair spray or double-sided tape, both work with MakerBot Replicator 2," he explained. A few pumps should be enough to hold in place whatever is being built.

Which, in this case, was a purple octopus trinket. He pressed the red light at the front of the MakerBot.

We stepped back.

We watched the MakerBot Replicator 2, which resembles a microwave without walls. At its center is a mechanical arm with a kind of liquid-plastic jet cartridge, which sprung into action, softly bleeping like R2-D2.

"There is a musicality to it," he said.

A thin outline of an octopus — the blueprint for which was already loaded into the MakerBot, therefore convenient — appeared, then slowly, over 45 minutes, its body gathered, assembling itself in purple layers.

"To me this is akin to the way we viewed personal computers," he said. "If you remember, at first it was a hobbyist thing, which (3-D printing) definitely is right now. Then eventually there was desktop publishing, which is now so familiar no one even calls it that anymore. But it has to start somewhere."

As the printer continued unspooling layer after layer of liquid plastic, Christensen stepped over to a second MakerBot and fiddled with the rendering surface. "Anyway, I was thinking maybe I would make a Ganesh with this printer."

The small, renovated space, which held a longtime exhibition on the history of a Chicago and is now the CPL Innovation Lab (of which the Maker Lab is its first innovation), buzzed with activity. On one side of the room, Christensen demonstrated the printer, which costs about $2,000; on the other side, there was the first of a series of weekly workshops that teach the basics of 3-D printing. Rebecca Wurtz, a doctor who specializes in infectious diseases at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, was taking the workshop. She wandered over and squinted at the octopus shape.

She told me that she wants to learn how to use "these printers so that someday I can design the technology that allows people to print out customized prosthetic limbs. It's a ways off, but definitely going to happen."

Eventually.

"This is really intended as a demonstration lab," Brian Bannon, Chicago Public Library commissioner, told me later, adding that libraries elsewhere have "big fabrication labs with 3-D printers, but that's not the direction we're taking. We want to explore the possibilities, familiarize people with the equipment first."

So, at the moment, on a table beside Christensen sat a handful of objects that Chicago librarians had designed as they tested the MakerBots at the Museum of Science and Industry's Fab Lab (as in "fabrication lab"). On the table were three plastic combs. Also, two models of Ganesh, the Hindu god. There was a bust of a fellow librarian (made with the assistance of the Xbox 360's Kinect digital imaging tool), a cat totem, a square of plastic chain mail, a shark, a pair of antlers and key chains.

Think digital shop class.

Or a very sophisticated Mold-A-Rama.

"Still, it's exciting that a library would democratize technology this way," said Tom Burtonwood, a Chicago artist who creates works almost entirely with MakerBots. "There is no better way for people to understand the possibilities of these machines than to put one in their hands and let them realize the potential. I use the analogy of (3-D printing) being now at where black-and-white photography was in the 1850s. The big difference being that it's not going to take 150 years before everyday people are grasping the ramifications."

Fair enough.

But let it be said, for the record, in the early years of the 21st century we were still grasping how to make tchotchkes with a 3-D printer. And nothing much taller than 3 inches.

"Call them tchotchkes," said Will Sumner, one of the librarians teaching the workshop, "but people like tchotchkes, and the thing about tchotchkes, you can't really find a personal, individualized tchotchke, and, at the very least, now you can."

Last year, on the Art Institute's website, Neely provided 3-D scans that would allow anyone with a MakerBot to create replicas of some of the museum's best-known sculptures.

"My dream is for someone to mash up the Art Institute collection with pieces from the (Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), but, so far, no takers," she lamented. Indeed, so far, for his part, Christensen has made a coffee cup sleeve. He held it up and showed me. It was yellow and had a nice latticework pattern and, as he explained, will save a few trees.

About 45 minutes later, he also had a very nice purple octopus.

Best I've seen.

cborrelli@tribune.com