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

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

CHICAGO

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