December 14, 2017

UMass Amherst Library Opens 3-D Printing Innovation Center

MakerBot Innovation CenterThe W.E.B. Du Bois Library at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst on March 26 hosted the grand opening of its new MakerBot Innovation Center. Part of the library’s Digital Media Lab, the Innovation Center features 50 3-D printers, several desktop 3-D scanners, and MakerBot’s proprietary Innovation Center Management Platform, which links all 50 printers together, enabling print queuing and mass production of 3-D prints. UMass Amherst is the first institution to offer such large-scale access to 3-D printing within a library setting, according to MakerBot officials.

“The faculty are chomping at the bit to get in here and do all kinds of things,” Carol Connare, director of development and communication for UMass Amherst Libraries, told LJ. In addition to interest from the university’s College of Engineering and Department of Architecture, the center has already drawn interest from a classics professor who has been working on a digital humanities project on the archaeology of Pompeii, and an economics professor who had been looking for a better way to illustrate 3-dimensional curve graphs to students.

In an early example of the center’s potential to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration, faculty from the university’s environmental conservation, building and construction technology, biology, public health, public policy, and engineering departments were planning to utilize the center for a course on remote sensing and environmental monitoring. During a training session held prior to the grand opening of the center, 20 faculty from 16 different disciplines attended to learn about using the new center, Connare said.

The library also plans to offer a one-credit course as a basic introduction to 3-D printing technology, and is anticipating the development of public-private partnerships with local businesses. Preliminary plans include an entrepreneur-in-residence program, workshops geared toward working professionals within the community, “elevator pitch” and business plan competitions, and coaching support for new venture start-ups.

“The MakerBot Innovation Center ties in firmly with the campus’s personality of being entrepreneurial and community engaged and will allow us to work more closely with the local business community,” Jay Schafer, director of libraries at UMass Amherst, said in an announcement. “Having a large-scale installation of MakerBot 3-D Printers makes this resource more broadly available on campus and puts UMass Amherst at the forefront of technological innovation. The MakerBot Innovation Center will help bridge the gap between the digital and the physical realm, so students can turn designs into 3-D physical objects and prototypes.”

The library began exploring the development of the center at the encouragement of Lorrey Bianchi, a long-time fundraiser, donor, and UMass Amherst Library Campaign Committee co-chair, Connare said. The library had already purchased one 3-D printer for its digital media lab, and a few departments had purchased units of their own, but the library is expecting demand for this emerging technology to outstrip the capacity of that patchwork collection.

Bianchi “is a retired information technologist, and he loves these sorts of things,” Connare said. “We decided to make the leap, basically, because in different departments around campus there’s a [3-D] printer here, there’s a [3-D] printer there, but if you want to teach people, you need more than one…. And, if students are going to be running three-hour print jobs as part of their curriculum, where is that going to happen?”

Although UMass Amherst is the first university to install a MakerBot Innovation Center in a library, four other universities have opened innovation centers with installations of 30 to 50 3-D printers in other university facilities, all in 2014. These include the State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz, the College of the Ouachitas in Arkansas, Florida Polytechnic University, and Xavier University in Cincinnati.

With prices for individual units ranging from $1,375 for its Replicator mini model to $2,899 for the standard Replicator and $6,499 for the extra-large Replicator z18, the technology is still priced out of reach for occasional users. However, for businesses or institutions aiming to offer employees or the public access to a technology that appears likely to play a vital role in STEM fields and manufacturing in the near future, the cost is becoming affordable. Jordan Brehove, VP of professional services for MakerBot, contends that the utility of individual 3-D printers as a component of a library Maker space or university learning commons has been proven at this point. The company has sold 80,000 units since it was founded in 2009, and about 500 U.S. libraries currently offer patrons access to a MakerBot 3-D printer, he told LJ.

The innovation labs, of course, represent a much more significant investment. Johan-Till Broer, public relations manager for MakerBot, compared the new innovation centers to the university computer labs of the 1980s. “They first moved into educational institutions and universities. It took a very long time before consumers adopted that technology and there was a computer in every home,” he said. “At the end of the day, [the innovation center] is about learning about the technology, learning about how to design in 3-D…. If you look at the future potential of this technology, and the predicted growth, it will be a very essential skill in the future.”

MakerBot, which offers hands-on public and private workshops on 3-D printing through its MakerBot Learning division, is currently implementing a three-tiered training program for institutions that have invested in an innovation center. “Deep dive” technical training is provided for the librarians or other people who will be involved in managing the center, performing troubleshooting, and keeping the equipment in working order. Separately, primary users—such as faculty who would like to use the center for a course or a project—are given courses that take “a very high level approach to design” and explain how to use the equipment in a variety of scenarios, Brehove said.

And, finally, MakerBot staff teach a course directed at the stakeholders within an institution, designed to give an overview of the technology and explain its potential.

“We found that when you’re implementing new technology, any type of solution, implementations are challenging,” Brehove said. “When you have someone that you want to understand 3-D printing, and get them involved, get them engaged, if you get them to one of those training sessions, taught by MakerBot Learning, they walk away really, really into it.”

Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Senior Editor, Technology for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Makerbot is doing it right, they have a good printer for a good price and they continue to be innovative in their customer approach. Love the idea about Innovation Center.