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3D Printing & Fabrication

Submitted by Jason Griffey on February 14, 2011 - 10:04am

One of the most exciting new realms in personal technology is the emergence of affordable 3D fabrication or printing technologies (or, my personal favorite nickname for the tech: fabbing). If you aren’t familiar with 3D printing, it’s the use of a hardware device to go directly from a computer file to 3 dimensional object, skipping any molding/carving/modeling or other sorts of manufacturing. It’s been available for a number of years for commercial use, and is used heavily by industry to prototype consumer devices, but the cost has always been prohibitive for individuals.

This is quickly changing. I’ve been fascinated by 3D printing since I wrote about one of the first personal 3D printing sites almost 5 years ago, Fabjectory. There are a number of sites that will do 3D printing for you these days, including Shapeways and Ponoko. Shapeways is my favorite, as it has not only the ability to upload a design of your own and get it printed, but also a storefront where you could offer your design to others and make it available for printing and purchase. Check out some of the amazing things you can order from Shapeways if you want just a few examples of why 3D fabbing can be beautiful and useful.

The next step in this technology is the move to home use. People in the industry like to say that 3D printing is currently where the homebrew computer scene was in the early 80’s; full of hobbyists and hackers, but poised to become the next big thing. This is nowhere more evident than in Makerbot and RepRap, two of the more popular 3D-fab-at-home solutions. For under $1500, you can buy and install a system from either seller that allows you to make your own 3D printed objects at home. Even better, a library could purchase a 3D printer, and make it available for use for the public.

There are a number of interesting questions for libraries that come up as a result of this new print-an-object capability. There are really interesting legal questions that come up regarding copyright, trademark, and patent law; how does the ability to print yourself a copy of an object effect the legality of that copy? What about the computer files that describe that copy? What about collections of said files? How do you organize sets of these files, and how do you manage the metadata necessary to make them findable?

I recommend that everyone read the whitepaper entitled It Will Be Awesome if They Don’t Screw It Up as an introduction to the issues around this new tech. It will, indeed, be awesome...and I want libraries to be part of this next technological shift.