3D printing my own plastic thingies in Bentleigh Library
A 3D printer is now available for public use at the City of Glen Eira's Bentleigh Library. It is freely available for anyone to use. You don't even need to be a library member, you just need to be able to pick up your printed product from Bentleigh Library when it is ready. I recently tried out this service and will explain below what 3D printing is, how the City of Glen Eira's ordering process works, what objects you can print and how to find ready-made designs for them. Like me, you will soon be making your own personally selected plastic trinkets in no time.
3D printers allow users to make plastic objects on demand. You send an electronic file with your design to the printer and it then creates that object by adding very thin plastic layers to each other. Up until the current time, 3D printers have largely been the domain of research institutions and cashed up early adopters of new technology. The City of Glen Eira's printing service is one of the first for the general public. It uses the MakerBot Replicator 2, which currently has a price tag of just under US$3000 if you want to buy one for yourself. At that price, particularly for the uninitiated, using an inexpensive library service makes much more sense.
The cup that is made of one really long straw, which I printed using the City of Glen Eira's 3D printer
Here are the steps you need to go through if you want to use the City of Glen Eira's service. Note that the library does not provide general technical support, so pay close attention to the following:
1. Visit a design file library on the internet to find plastic objects that you can print. The Makerbot printer requires an STL file, which defines the surface geometry of the object. If you have the time and knowledge, you can create an STL file yourself, however most people have neither. The easier alternative is to visit an online library of object designs. I used thingiverse.com, which has thousands of free designs and dozens of new designs being uploaded by people every day. Trawling through the photos of objects available to create is fascinating in itself. It included key chains, cups, clothing, jewellery, spare parts for machines, wall hooks, plastic toys, mobile phone cases, musical instruments, clothing, dinosaur bones and much more – basically anything you can think of that you can make in plastic already has a design file. There were a high number of designs for Doctor Who and Star Trek trinkets, probably reflecting the interests of the early adopters. I found the thingiverse popular objects page to be the easiest for browsing when I wasn't sure what to print. The City of Glen Eira does not provide any design files
2. Select the object that you want to print. I ended up selecting two objects: a funky cup that is really just a very long drinking straw and a panda bear cookie cutter.
My printed panda cookie cutter - note the wispy bits of plastic that need trimming before use
3. Download the design file and unzip it. The cookie cutter file was tiny at only 164 kb (smaller than most photos) and the file for the cup was 7 Mb.
4. Email the STL design file to the library's 3D printing email address: 3Dprinting@gleneira.vic.gov.au, with the subject heading '3D print job'. In the body of your email nominate the colour that you want printed and provide your name. Available colours are white, yellow, red, black or translucent. You can't do multi-coloured printing, but you can print different parts of a composite object in different colours if they each have their own design file.
5. Wait for your order to be processed. The City of Glen Eira promises to send an email confirmation of your order, but I never received one. I received an email when the job was ready to pick up, five days after placing the order.
6. Go to the library, pay for your object and take it home. My two objects took 6 hours to print in total. The library charges $1 per hour of printing time, so my cup and cookie cutter set me back $6. There is free parking at the library.
Bentleigh library, where you can pick up your printed object
7. Trim the object if you need to with a knife or a pair of snips. Objects produced from 3D printers have a lower quality finish than injection moulds used in plastics manufacturing. On my cookie cutter there were a few very fine threads of plastic hanging off the object and the tip of the straw needed to be smoothed off so that there was no risk of scratching your lip.
Hopefully the above steps will give you enough confidence to experiment with 3D printing on your own. After knowing nothing when I first learned about the service, I was able to generate my own objects without too much effort or technical know-how. For the record, the cup was a lot of fun – I did it in a translucent colour so that you could see the liquid rising round and round through the straw – but it entrained too much air and is impossible to clean, so it wasn't very practical. I'm yet to try the cookie cutter, but I'm looking forward to trying it out.
Library services should be about increasing your knowledge and expanding your mind, and the City of Glen Eira's innovative 3D printing service helped me do both. I'm so glad this public service gave me the opportunity to better understand a new technology.