Starting A Teen 3D Printing Club at Your Library

Originally appears in the February 2017 print edition of VOYA Magazine as “Teens and Technology: Teen 3D Printing Club”.

3D printing is an exciting technology that can engage your teen patrons like few things can! The question for many libraries that are considering purchasing a 3D printer (or for some that already have made a purchase) is what to do with them! By creating a teen 3D printing club at your library, you can guarantee a full year of activities. So how do you get started?

Creating a budget:

The most obvious (and costly) expenditure is, of course, your 3D printer. 3D Hubs maintains an extremely comprehensive buying guide that should inform your purchase! In general, a standard size, entry level 3D printer from one of the more established companies will run you between $2,200 and $3,000. These include the current generation Makerbot, Ultimaker and Lulzbot. You could potentially save money by ordering a miniaturized version of these printers. Buying a mini printer will save you money, but sacrifice build volume, meaning significantly smaller prints! Considering the amount of printing that can be generated in a club, it’s inadvisable to purchase a budget brand. You should set aside $100 for some fine sandpaper and miniature needle nose pliers for cleaning up prints.

Aside from your printer and tools, consumables are the ongoing cost you must manage. Consumables are all the materials your printer uses up as it operates. These can include:

  • Filament: the plastic or other material used to print an object. As an example, a 1kg spool of ABS filament costs $48, which is enough material to print 392 chess pieces! For the most part, you will be printing in a single color. This gives you the option to either purchase a quantity of one neutral color filament (which can be painted) or multiple differently colored filaments. I’ll address the rate of printing later, but as a general rule, a half dozen spools of filament is a good starting point. This will run roughly $300.
  • Build plate covers: the surface where printing occurs often needs to be covered with materials ranging from Elmer’s glue, to painters tape or other proprietary materials. Roughly $50 annually should cover you.
  • Replacement extruders: the extruder is the print head where heated material comes out to form layers which in turn form your object. While they tend to last many, many hours, they can become jammed and require repair or replacement. Having an extra on hand can cut down time and is highly recommended! Depending on the model, this can be unnecessary (the manufacturer would need to replace it themselves) or an approximately $200 purchase.
  • Maintenance kits: Most printers require regular maintenance. These tend to be inexpensive purchases in the form of replacement parts, or a lubricant that needs to be applied to gears and other points of friction.

Cost savings & justifications:

All told, a printer and a year’s consumables will likely run somewhere in the realm of $3,000 – $4,000. Keep in mind, your first year of 3D printing will be the most expensive. A well-maintained printer will last several years, meaning the long-term costs can be quite manageable. The cost of a 3D printer can be shared by several library departments who could all benefit from its use. Being able to insource your 3D printing programs is a significant cost saver as well. Consider the cost of paying a programmer to hold a dozen or more classes!

Looking at your consumables, companies such as Gizmo Dorks sell generic versions of filaments at a discount. When using generics, always ensure that doing so will not void your printer’s warranty. If your printer uses a cover for its build plate, this can also be a source of savings. If you’re willing to buy in bulk and cut your tape to fit, you’ll find it far less expensive than purchasing from your printer’s manufacturer. With our budget established, we can move on to running the club itself!

Start with TinkerCAD!:

In a 3D printing club, there needs to be a focus on design. Happily, there are many free or inexpensive options when it comes to design software. In my experience, TinkerCAD is the best option for several reasons. For starters, it is free! It’s browser based, so there’s no need to install software. It employs a cloud save feature, so you can manage the account from any computer, plus you don’t need to worry about your public computers wiping saved data if you use restore software. It offers a series of sample lessons perfect for teaching students or staff who might be running a class. Finally, it uses a highly visual, geometric editor that is a great precursor to more advanced CAD software. For these reasons, TinkerCAD can and should form the core software you use. As a club progresses, you can of course introduce additional software to keep things fresh.

A Zelda inspired key designed by Nestor, a teen patron.

Setup:

Ideally, each member of the club should have access to a computer or laptop with internet access. In the case of browser-based design software (such as TinkerCAD), Chromebooks are also an inexpensive option, as they can run in the $200 range. Mice are a necessity–it can be extremely difficult to design using a touchpad! Depending on the size of the club, it can be helpful to have an instructor’s computer hooked up to a projector or large two-way monitor to facilitate demonstrations. Initially, I create a single TinkerCAD account which I log each student into–don’t give out the password! This allows the instructor to easily track progress from a single login, which is especially useful when it’s time to print.

Your Inaugural Meeting:

For your first club meeting(s), you should focus on both 3D printing and 3D design. Have your 3D printer on hand so you can go over its anatomy before giving a printing demonstration. Explain the basics of the technology. Let participants handle spools of filament and some sample printed items. Aside from the hardware, you should next tackle the software! In the case of TinkerCAD, you can have your teens work on one of the curated lessons or choose to teach the software basics yourself. If you’re vastly outnumbered, pre-made lessons will allow you the flexibility to assist anyone who is struggling, while still keeping the group moving. It is also important that you establish some ground rules early on. These include:

How often are you printing? Printing can be a time consuming process! Even a small chess-sized print could take 45 minutes to an hour. Multiply that by the number of club members and you can see a potential logjam! Your club may meet weekly, monthly, etc. It is important that you come up with a schedule that can accommodate your teens’ creativity and the workload of your staff and printer.

What are the specifications of your prints? Often, when it comes time to print, your teens will want to “make it as big as possible”. In terms of time and material, this is impractical at best. Communicate a set size for your prints, using either time or material. Aside from managing workflow, this will also allow you to accurately budget for your filament. A secondary consideration is whether your teens are choosing their print colors. Even if you are allowing that flexibility, you should clue them in that a print comes in a single color–this can inform their design decisions!

What is appropriate to print? Having a 3D print policy in place will allow you to be transparent and consistent. Can someone print a weapon? An offensive slogan? Will you respect copyright? Better to have a set of clear rules to point to rather than making it up as you go!

Regular activities:

Generally, your club can be run as a sort of “freestyle”. In a freestyle, participants simply design what they want to. The instructor of the class is present to offer advice and otherwise troubleshoot as the teens create their designs. You can run the entirety of your club in this format, or use it as a break from more formalized sessions. When a participant has finished a design, the instructor gives it a look-over, ensuring it is a printable object that observes your club’s guidelines. If it checks out, the design is downloaded as an .STL file, which can be formatted for printing in whatever design software your printer runs on (Cura, Makerbot Desktop, etc). Most often, this printing will take place outside of the club, given time constraints.

Even after a design is printed, there’s often more to do. Designs commonly have excess material that serves as a support structure while they are printed. Beyond that, prints can have rough edges or “fuzz” that requires cleaning. Depending on the size and intricacy, excess material can be removed by hand, sanded away or clipped with simple tools such as scissors and needle nosed pliers. Cleanups may be time consuming, but they can also be fun!

These post-print sessions are also an opportunity to see what went wrong, or at least, what can be improved. An ideal design is one that takes into account the limitations of a 3D printer. As your teens examine their printed works, they may discover design flaws that lead to poor prints–too much overhang, weak connections, not enough contact points with the build plate, etc. Many times, a design session is actually spent reworking a prior design to make it more printable. This is exactly the benefit of the club–it represents an ongoing learning process!

Beyond your club itself is a greater community of 3D printing enthusiasts. Sites like Thingiverse allow designs to be uploaded and shared with others, who can then print them, or even incorporate them into new designs. Creating a Thingiverse site for your library is a great way to collect and showcase these works online. Your teens can also create their own sites which can follow or be followed by the library. Set aside some time for your club members to upload their proven (successfully printed) models if they wish. These designs can be added to a collection within Thingiverse, allowing you to organize by club, project, or any other criteria you wish to use. The Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library’s Thingiverse site can be viewed here.

Mixing it up!

If your club ever feels like it’s getting stale, it may be time to mix things up! Try one of the following to keep things fresh:

Challenges: In a challenge session, you simply give confront the group with a task. “Design a new utensil,” or “create a new species!” These are ways of getting the creative juices flowing. As they view each other’s designs, they tend to play off one another.

Collaborations: This type of format is one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You might have the class design a chess board. Each teen would work on the different parts, from the game board to the pawns, rooks and other pieces. This format works well when you have an established club whose members know each other.

Demonstration: A demonstration is an opportunity to check out a new piece of equipment, or introduce a speaker or concept. Perhaps you have someone in the industry that is willing to talk to the group. Maybe there is an opportunity to have a new printer on loan, or a complimentary piece of equipment, such as a 3D scanner! You can also introduce a new piece of design software. At the end of this article is a resource list which includes some additional free options.

Remix: A remix session is one where you rework an existing design. Your teens can download a model from an open source site (always check the licensing permissions) open it in TinkerCAD, then add on, combine, or otherwise rework it to create something new. They can even use each other’s files!

3D printed prosthetic hand
3D-printed “Raptor Reloaded” prosthetic hand. Photo credit: Sara Roye

Volunteer Opportunities: Non-profit organizations such as Enabling the Future pair people in need with free 3D printed, open-source prosthetics. Having a class print and assemble replacement hands or arms is an activity that is both educational and deeply rewarding. Aside from prosthetics, you can also use your club to help to provide helpers in a 3D print class for children.This younger audience needs extra attention–your teen volunteers can give it to them!

Wrapping Up A Club with an Art Show:

While a club can run indefinitely, your teens will eventually age out of the department. For this reason, it is nice to have a culminating event, namely a 3D print art show! An art show is a chance to showcase the good work your teens have been doing during the club.

Ethan F. in front the model B-17 Bomber he designed.

As your teens create their designs, they begin to accrue quite a portfolio! Have them each select their favorite design, one that has already been printed in miniature and perfected. This print will be rendered in a size fit for display–likely a 6-8 hour print! In addition to your display piece, you can also print their designs in the traditional sense. This means saving the image itself (in TinkerCAD, or your design/printer software) then printing it on paper and mounting it to foam board, cardboard, or another material. This will allow participants to feature multiple works, including some designs that could have proved difficult to print. You can then add each teen’s name to the exhibit by adding a label, name plate, or simply having them sign their work. A 3D art show can be scaled to taste. It can be done as an annual or semi-annual event. It can operate as a stand alone event, or exist as an exhibit within a general art show. It also acts as a great recruitment event for new members, so you can fill your ranks and plan for another year of printing!

Resource List: 3D Design Software:

123D Design: Intermediate CAD (computer aided design) software. Free and available for PC.

Autodesk ReMake: Using this software, you take multiple photos of the same object from different angles. This then generates a 3D model which can be downloaded & printed!  A free version is available for PC

Blokify: Blokify uses blocks which can be dropped on a grid to form three dimensional objects. This is a great app for designing quickly, or for those who may struggle with TinkerCAD. As it creates blocky designs, it is also perfect for someone who is looking to make pixel or Minecraft inspired designs! Available from the App Store for $3.99.

Cubify Draw: Despite its name, Cubify allows you to design in curves. You can either upload a photo and trace its outline or draw freehand. In either case, you use a single connected line. This two dimensional drawing is then given depth and thickness, creating a 3D object! Free from the App Store.

Blender: Blender is powerful design software which does come with a steep learning curve. Available for Windows, Mac OSX & Linux.

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