EDITOR’S SUMMARY

Since 2012 the 3D printing operation at Miami University’s Business, Engineering, Science and Technology Library has developed into a high demand service that promotes learning for a broad range of users. With the first two basic 3D printers set up in separate locations, multiple operators developed skills and provided backup support for each other. A variety of user groups emerged beyond the expected subject disciplines and applications, and, with a growing circle of users, students have been employed for printing tasks, gaining technical skills and enabling the library to expand its services. Placing printers in highly visible locations prompted interest and interactions among onlookers. Strong demand for the 3D printing service has necessitated coordination between the library and departments, collaboration between departments, prioritization of needs and funding for more durable equipment, while stimulating developments in curricula and research agendas.

KEYWORDS

3D printers
digital modeling and fabrication
library and archival services
diffusion of innovation
technology transfer
academic libraries
academic communities
collaboration


Library as Collaboratory: Partnerships, Knowledge Transfer and Dialogue in Library-based 3D Services

by Kevin R. Messner

Contemporary academic libraries continue to face an identity crisis of sorts, as the traditional roles of gatherers and keepers of scholarly information are increasingly scattered beyond our purview. Many libraries have adapted and pursued new roles and services, for example in providing access to electronic media production services and tools. In the past several years, the maker movement has taken root in many public, academic and special libraries, with libraries offering their patrons access to specialized equipment and expertise in various fabrication techniques, ranging from 3D printing to electronics to sewing. User engagement and community building are seen as the hallmarks of success for libraries offering such services.

The Business, Engineering, Science and Technology (B.E.S.T.) Library at Miami University established a 3D printing service in the fall of 2012, and since that time it has grown into a robust, well-established and well-used service point for the university community. The unexpected lesson along the way has been the extent to which our success as a service has been supported and enhanced by engagement with and learning from the several user communities around our campus with shared interests in 3D technology. Our service has flourished to the extent that we have been able to bring partners on board and engage and exchange knowledge with our clientele.

Our Internal, Library-to-Library Partnership

We began our service modestly, with a pair of desktop hobbyist-quality fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printers. Very quickly the necessity for collaboration became apparent, in this first case an internal collaboration between our staff at B.E.S.T. and the libraries’ Center for Information Management (CIM) at King Library across campus. We located a printer at each location, as CIM has a strong record and reputation for developing new services in media production, and B.E.S.T. has several natural user constituencies in our subject area portfolio and in our neighborhood on campus. Additional benefits of having the machines at separate locations, each with a few sets of hands on them, quickly became apparent. These printers could produce quality results, but they were finicky, and there was definitely a level of finesse needed to operate them successfully. We frequently benefitted from one another’s experiences and tips and from critical support from our libraries’ computer systems office. If all else failed with a particular job, passing it off to the other shop and (usually) watching them have trouble with it as well, gave us reassurance that we weren’t missing something obvious.

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Figure 1. Our start-up printers on the workbench at B.E.S.T. Library. Keeping the printers visible to the public during operation has drawn in new patrons and helped spread word about the service. Image courtesy of Kevin Messner

Before long, as replacement parts, teardowns and overhauls of the machines became necessary, the two technicians primarily responsible for the printers utilized one another regularly for advice and as an extra pair of hands during rebuilds. Finally, when one of those staff members left the university for another position (not to escape the conundrums of 3D printing, he assured us!), having staff in another facility that were familiar with the printers was invaluable in simple terms of institutional memory. When that staff person was replaced, there were knowledgeable co-workers available to train the new employee. Indeed, this cycle has repeated itself again already. In a small college town where many employees come and go within the space of a few years and the services themselves are rapidly evolving over a period of months, this sort of organic knowledge management through active partnership is crucial to providing continuous operations. We continue to maintain both service points and keep multiple staff members involved in running the printers, not only for user convenience but with this workplace reality in mind.

Digging Up a Collaborator

Various user groups soon emerged as principal clients for these machines. One user, Jeb Card, came from a discipline we did not initially anticipate, our anthropology department. A field and digital archaeologist, Dr. Card had already been active in 3D scanning of artifacts recovered on digs and in the university’s archaeological collections, with the eventual intent of producing online digital collections. Printing physical replicas of these objects for uses such as producing teaching objects that could be safely passed around a classroom was another natural subsequent step for his work. Dr. Card has since been a regular user of the printing service, and we have benefited greatly from this relationship. The libraries already had a 3D scanner, but we had not had great success in using it. Dr. Card, it turned out, utilized the same scanner and was proficient in its use and helpful in providing tips and ongoing advice for our technicians. What success we have had in 3D scanning we largely owe to his generous input. As we look to expand our range of 3D digitization services, Dr. Card remains a crucial source of advice.

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Figure 2. Scanning and printing replicas of archaeological artifacts has been an unexpected major use case for our service and a point of connection between the humanities and technology. Image courtesy of Thomas Tully

Dr. Card teaches a digital anthropology course that includes scanning and printing artifacts. We recently hired a student of Dr. Card’s onto our library student staff, and we are utilizing her skill set in scanning and manipulating 3D image files. Bringing students into the mix is a recurring theme in our service. From the perspective of library operations, hiring students is one way to bring some of the relevant technical knowledge found in our academic departments to our library-based service. We learn from our student employees as they learn from us. Additionally though, as an institution focused on undergraduate education, being able to provide employment opportunities for students that go beyond mundane tasks and help develop advanced and employable skill sets is immensely gratifying and motivating.

Our relationship with Dr. Card also provided a unique opportunity for broad media exposure jointly for the library and his home department. When several artifacts in the university’s archaeology collection were stolen, the silver lining that emerged from this unfortunate event was that Dr. Card had previously scanned some of the missing objects. We were then able to produce 3D printed replicas of these objects for teaching purposes. Local media became interested in this part of the story, and the library’s 3D printing operation was highlighted in a live local morning news segment alongside Dr. Card’s work.

Fostering a New Researcher

We anticipated early on that a major user group for the printers would be our engineering departments, particularly mechanical and manufacturing engineering (MME). As much as possible we have placed our printers in public locations where they could be seen in operation, and in a sense we let the printers market themselves. Very frequently the students who would circle around a printer or approach the technicians were engineering students. These informal interactions often led to follow-up requests for printing and modeling assistance. In this vein, I also began discussions with a professor in the department, Harry Pierson, who has a research interest in rapid additive fabrication technologies.

Miami provides entering students an opportunity to engage with faculty in research endeavors through its First-Year Research Experience (FYRE) program. I asked Dr. Pierson in Fall 2013 if he would be willing to serve as a co-mentor with me for a first-year student in FYRE. Student Brandon Free, who was seeking a research home for the year, subsequently approached us. Brandon entered as a mechanical engineering and physics double major, and came from an engineering prep course in high school with a well-developed skill set in computer-aided drafting (CAD) software and some computerized numerical control (CNC) fabrication experience. This knowledge was very helpful in our early efforts to gain improved control of the printers through interpreting and modifying their G-code (the programming language used by most CNC instruments including our printers). Brandon’s familiarity with 3D modeling, and relevant features in AutoCAD in particular, were also extremely helpful.

For a research project, Brandon conducted material strength testing of objects built by our printers, partly a response to questions we received (usually from engineering students) about the properties of parts built on our printers. The “library-as-laboratory” concept became quite literal, for example using a spare office for a long-term weight-bearing experiment. For other experiments, Dr. Pierson arranged access to equipment in the engineering school. Brandon conducted a battery of experiments, for example demonstrating that parts built in different orientations have much different strengths (the “Z-axis” between build layers being the weak dimension). Brandon presented his results at the 2014 Undergraduate Research Conference at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

Although shortly after this Dr. Pierson left Miami for another position, Brandon remained interested in engineering research at the university. At this point, the library-as-laboratory concept could only be stretched so far, and I encouraged Brandon to approach a research group in the chemical and biomedical engineering department that was engaged in 3D printing research. Brandon joined that research group this past academic year, and his advisors report he has done very well in helping their experimental machines run properly and recently in co-authoring a paper. We couldn’t be more proud.

Design Dilemmas

As the printing service grew, we began to receive questions about how to build 3D models suitable for printing. There is a wide variety of readily available, entry-level software on the market. Potential users frequently arrived with models built in Trimble (nee Google) SketchUp. Our experience however was that these models did not translate well to the 3D printer if extreme care was not taken by the user to avoid gaps between surfaces and to create walls with finite thickness, rather than geometric planes. To help us build capacity for dealing with issues like correcting modeling problems and building models de novo, we approached Eric Hodgson, a colleague in our Interactive Media Studies Program, for suggestions of skilled students who had completed his digital modeling course. We were already working with Eric at the time on a related collaboration between IMS and the libraries, a 3D projector in the library intended to showcase student work, and the students we hired were capable of contributing to both of those efforts. These students contributed to resolving a number of problem prints, and one assisted me (taking my crude pencil sketches onto the computer screen) in designing our 3D Miami “Block M” logo.

Figure 3. Our 3D Miami “Block M” logo, designed by this author and an IMS student, has proven popular as a marketing tool with parties around the university. Image courtesy of Kevin Messner

Figure 3. Our 3D Miami “Block M” logo, designed by this author and an IMS student, has proven popular as a marketing tool with parties around the university. Image courtesy of Kevin Messner

Student employees have a fortunate habit of graduating and leaving university, so recruiting students for these roles is a continuing challenge. Having also noted from working with our FYRE student that some of our engineering students come to Miami with strong existing technology skills, particularly in CAD, we soon looked to hire a relatively new student to assist us with our design problems. We hired David Ternik, another mechanical engineering and physics major. Like Brandon, he had prior exposure to AutoDesk software from high school coursework. David has effectively served as a CAD tutor and has been invaluable in providing design assistance to engineering students and other patrons in executing CAD designs and in assisting with software problems. Again, from our vantage of enhancing the student experience at university, these students are gaining valuable experience serving as consultants on projects and refining technical skills with software they will encounter in future workplaces. The libraries benefit by establishing a well-rounded set of 3D services encompassing the life cycle of 3D scanning, modeling and printing.

Upping Our Game: Moving Beyond Entry-level Machinery

It was not long before we realized that for the long term, our workflow was such that we needed to look beyond hobbyist- or consumer-market printers and indeed at other technologies beyond FDM (fused deposition modeling) printing. FDM printing is only one (albeit the best known) 3D printing technology, and the particular formulations of plastics our printers use are only a few of many different materials available. Our first foray into using another printing technology was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Our MME department had several years before acquired a gypsum-based powder 3D printer. The printer had unfortunately fallen into disuse as it was not well publicized, and there was not a person in the department whose primary duties included maintaining and operating it. The key feature of this printer, and the novel feature that spurred our interest in it, was its capacity for detailed multicolor printing. After discussion with MME, we agreed to bring the printer to the library, sharing the cost of having some necessary remediation work done, and to offer the printer as a joint department/library service instrument alongside our FDM printers. Michael Bailey-Van Kuren, MME professor involved in this effort, expressed satisfaction that the printer would not be “hidden away in a closet” at the library, as was (literally) the case for some other fabrication machinery on campus.

MME students were granted permission to use the gypsum-based printer at no cost. Unfortunately, for many of these students’ applications requiring durable functional parts (e.g., gears, brackets, fasteners), this printer was of limited use, because the models produced are quite fragile. Color printing was however greatly appreciated by many parties on campus – for example, by chemists for the ability to print molecular models with atom types represented by color and notably by our anthropology colleague for the ability to reproduce artifact models in their original colors.

Figure 4. Color model of a protein molecule, showing the molecule’s complex topology and different atom types in different colors (for example, oxygen in red, nitrogen in blue). Image courtesy of Kevin Messner

Figure 4. Color model of a protein molecule, showing the molecule’s complex topology and different atom types in different colors (for example, oxygen in red, nitrogen in blue). Image courtesy of Kevin Messner

As we have expanded the 3D printing service, this question of what types of printing and materials we want to provide and the need to prioritize has become a major driver of discussion. In conversations with various personnel in engineering, physics and chemistry it was clear a primary interest was in durable, finely machined parts suitable for machinery or lab equipment applications. We raised the possibility of acquiring a stereolithography printer (SLA), a technology that handles fine details very well; however, personnel in MME pointed out that models from SLA printing are typically short-lived as they are prone to oxidation and become brittle. They were most interested in FDM printing with a precise, high quality machine. MME instructor Bob Setlock told me, “What you need is not a hobby machine, but a real, heavy-duty printer.” This led to Mr. Setlock and me writing a local Student Technology Fee grant proposal, co-submitted by the libraries and MME, for a professional-quality industrial FDM 3D printer.

The grant was predicated on two mutual arguments: the libraries would house and maintain the machine as part of a visible established service available to the entire university community and MME would provide a built-in user base for the machine as they intend to integrate use of the printer into several of their design courses. This latter argument helps justify the university’s investment in this expensive equipment. Ironically, after nearly one year of running this machine, it is actually the physics department that is its heaviest user, as they are using it to build batches of experimental laboratory equipment for the first-year physics lab course. Nonetheless, it has been used by engineering students and others across the university and is a major step up for our service capacity and for the consistency and reproducibility of our product.

Figure 5. One of the first demonstration objects we modeled in CAD and produced on our professional printer. A tight-sealing threaded lid is achievable with this high-quality machinery. Image courtesy of Thomas Tully

Figure 5. One of the first demonstration objects we modeled in CAD and produced on our professional printer. A tight-sealing threaded lid is achievable with this high-quality machinery. Image courtesy of Thomas Tully

Looking Ahead

We expect current and future collaborative endeavors in 3D printing, scanning and other fabrication and digitization technologies will follow a similar pattern: the library can make a strong case in a funding request for housing equipment and technology that will be visible, maintained and operated for the benefit of a wide constituency, while academic partners can provide strong specific cases for research and teaching needs for the equipment. These partners become regular baseline users. We avoid the question a reviewer might otherwise ask, “What is a library going to do with this machinery?” To turn a phrase, if we have it, we know they will come, because it is being written into their curricula and research agendas. Likewise, as an educational institution, we will continue to seek out opportunities to work with interested faculty who benefit from our service as we learn from their perspectives. And we will continue to hire talented student employees with skills developed in their disciplinary studies, who gain valuable job experience as they capably assist our core staff and help us build our services with far more dexterity than we could alone.


Kevin R. Messner is biology librarian and currently acting head of the Business, Engineering, Science and Technology Library at Miami University in Ohio. He earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and M.S. in LIS at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached at krmessner<at>miamioh.edu.