February 16, 2018

Printing with Purpose | Field Reports


It was back in April 2014 that we first met. The Makerbot Replicator and I, that is. I work at the Half Hollow Hills Community Library (HHHCL) in Dix Hills, NY, and we are part of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, located on the eastern half of Long Island. Our library system has a bit of a reputation for being smart and ljx150501webfieldReport1ahead of the curve with technology, and when HHHCL heard of its out-of-the-box idea of circulating a 3-D printer among member libraries, we couldn’t wait to sign up. Our turn came last April.

We didn’t quite know what to expect from our staff and patrons, but even before it was up and running there were crowds. We were elbowing each other out of the way trying to get a turn during staff training. The next morning, as our library patrons walked by while the printer was running, they stopped dead in their tracks, fascinated. All ages. Grandparents put toddlers on their shoulders, kids wormed up to the front and practically put their noses to the protective screen, and teens came by every day after school and watched as if it were a movie. Everyone had a ton of questions and wanted to handle a printed object. Their jaws would drop when they realized that a little printed bracelet was stretchable. My feet would hurt from standing all day like a technology docent; my voice would be hoarse by the time I got home. It was great!

The Replicator was only ours for two weeks, and then it was on its way to the next library, like a rock star on tour. We hated the deflated feeling. It was time to purchase our own 3-D printer. We went for the Makerbot 5th Generation printer, since we had such a positive experience with the Replicator 2.

A helping hand

Our love affair was severely tried after the printer’s arrival. There were problems right out of the box, and it wasn’t until months later, following many firmware/software updates, that we were operational and announcing its availability for patron use. Soon after, we received an email from a college student who remembered seeing the 3-D printer at the library in April. She heard about a volunteer organization called E-nable (enablingthefuture.org) and wanted to know if we would work with her to help make a prosthetic hand for a child in need. What a perfect way to use our Makerbot when it wasn’t in the grip of our library patrons!

We worked together—she sent me file specifications, I learned some simple printing tricks—and as the pieces would build inside the machine, staffers and patrons would walk by and ask what was printing. It was a noble cause and a terrific opportunity to showcase what could be done with new technology. Inevitably, everyone’s reaction was extremely positive. On a daily basis I was asked, “How’s the hand coming?”

Once the printing process was completed, the library bought the assembly kit from shop3duniverse.com (under $25). I brought everything home, and my husband had it assembled within a few hours. The finished product (pictured) was happily delivered by our college student volunteer to the little boy who needed it.

The costs

  • Of course, the 3-D printer is a big expense. We paid about $2,500, but there are cheaper ones on the market.
  • The filament to print is pretty reasonable. To subsidize the cost, we charge $1 for an hour of printing; the hand took five to six hours to print.
  • The assembly kit is less than $25 with the coupon code from E-nable.
  • The total cost for the hand was $30–$40 for the library, compared to the many thousands a patient would have to pay to acquire a typical prosthetic hand. Testimonials from those using E-nable hands (on its website) are wonderful to watch.

Spreading the joy

The project was done, yet people still asked about “the hand.” It was time to do more. If my husband could assemble a hand in a few hours, maybe we could find other volunteers in the area interested in doing it, too. High school students are always looking for community service hours, so this fall we are putting together kits that will include all the 3-D printed parts and pieces to create a hand. The students can assemble them, and we will send the finished work on to E-nable.

We found a local 3-D printing enthusiast who is also involved with E-nable and booked him to talk about the organization for a weekend family program. We’re getting neighborhood scout troops interested as well. I joined E-nable’s Google Community Group bitly.com/e-nable) to find other volunteers. And I hope as word spreads, the volunteers will come looking for us, too.

Ellen Druda is Digital Projects Coordinator, Internet Services, Half Hollow Hills Community Library, Dix Hills, NY. She has reviewed video materials for LJ since 1991 and was the 2004 Video Reviewer of the Year

This is the first installment of a new monthly column in which librarians will share innovative solutions and practical ­applications involving library technology. If you have a column idea that you would like to share, contact Matt Enis at menis@mediasourceinc.com

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  1. I thought that this was an amazingly informative article. The Riverhead Free Library is hoping
    to add a replicator to our organization. However, a slight correction: The Suffolk County Library
    System is incorrect. The proper name for our consortium is: The Suffolk Cooperative Library
    Thank you,
    Susan M. Bergmann
    Community Outreach Services Department Coordinator

    • Matt Enis Matt Enis says:

      Hi Susan,

      Thanks so much for catching that. The article has been corrected with a link to the Suffolk Cooperative Library System’s site. We will run a print correction as well. Thanks for your time!