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3D Printing for Fun, Science & Libraries

“Could new Maker Spaces together with a reinforced commitment to learning-by-doing create the next generation of tinkerers, fluent in advanced manufacturing and rapid prototyping techniques?” [1]

Rapid fabrication resonates particularly well with “mens et manus” , the MIT philosophy of combining learning and doing. And Neil Gershenfeld has noted that  MIT has had a long-standing joke that a student is allowed to graduate only when their thesis can walk out of the printer. 

For the last year, the Institute has been thoughtfully reflecting on the future of education, and how “doing” will remain a part of it. One exciting vision involves organizing around a combination of academic villages and maker spaces that catalyze and combine on-line activities, in-person interactions and hands-on experiences.

My colleague Matt Bernhardt  was prevailed upon to give an overview of some of the key technologies that promise to enable this future. Matt, who is the Libraries current Web Developer, was trained as an architect and  founded and ran a fabrication space at the University of Ohio, and is acting as an expert advisor. We collaborated to organize a workshop summarizing the current generation of rapid fabrication technologies as an IAP session and as part of the Program on Information Science Brown Bag Series.

Matt’s excellent talk provided a general overview of the digitation-fabrication cycle and the broad categories of technologies for 3-d scanning and for rapid fabrication: subtractive, deformative, and additive methods, and their variants. His talk also provides exemplars of the state-of-the-practice in additive fabrication technologies, emerging methods and the range of capabilities (e.g. for scale, materials, precision) currently available in practice. (These slides are embedded below: )

For thousands of years, libraries have had a major role in the discovery, management, and sharing of information. Rapid fabrication can be seen, in a way, as offering the ability to materialize information. So the question of  what roles the libraries might take on in relationship to supporting  fabrication and  managing the intellectual assets produced and used  is of natural interest from a library and information science point of view.  And it is not just of theoretical interest —  a recent survey by the Garnder-Harvey Library found that  substantial proportion of libraries were providing or planning to provide at least some support for “Maker Spaces”.

As  a complement to Matt’s talk, I outlined in the presentation below how fabrication fits into the research information life cycle, and some of the models for library support:

Clearly this area is of interest to MIT affiliates. The IAP talk rapidly reached its cap of 35 registrants, with nearly 70 more on the wait list, and participants  in the session discussed exploring how rapid fabrication can be used in a variety of ongoing research and scholarly projects, such as collaborative design of a satellite, rapid development of robots, modeling human anatomy for biomedical engineering, and fashion!

More generally, fabrication technologies are now used in production for medical implants, prosthetics, teaching aids, information visualization, research on rare/fragile objects, architecture, art, and advanced manufacturing. And use for creating custom pharmaceuticals, “printing” or “faxing” biological systems, and for printing active objects with embedded sensors and electronics is on the horizon. Having a dissertation “walk out of the printer” won’t be a joke for much longer.

As Lipson and Kerman [3] astutely point out, rapid advances in fabrication technologies are rapidly lowering a number of different barriers faced by researchers (and others), barriers that had previously made it prohibitively difficult for most individuals, researchers, or organizations to manufacture objects without substantial investment in obtaining manufacturing skills and equipment; to manufacture complex objects; to offer a wide variety of different objects; to easily customize and individualize manufacturing; to manufacture objects locally, or on-site; to manufacture objects with little lead time (or just-in-time); or to easily and precisely replicate physical objects. Furthermore, as they point out, additive fabrication technologies open up new forms of design (“design spaces”) such as localized design (based on local conditions and needs), reactive design (where objects are manufactured that collect sensor information that is then used to manufacture better objects), generative design (physical objects based on mathematical patterns and processes), and the application sample-remix-and-burn to physical objects.

Increasingly, fabrication is becoming part of various stages of the research lifecycle. These technologies may be use early on as part of prototyping for research interventions or to embed sensors for research data collection; or later on as part of analysis or research collaboration (e.g. by materializing models for examination and sharing). And, naturally, these technologies produce intellectual assets — sensor data and digitization, models and methods, that are potentially valuable to other researchers for future reuse and replication. The Library may have a useful role to play in managing these assets.

And this is only the beginning. Current technologies allow control over shape. Emerging technologies (as Matt’s talk shows) are beginning to allow control over material composition. And as any avid science-fiction reader could tell you — control over the behavior of matter is next, and a real replicator should be able to print a table that can turn into a chair at the press of a button. (Or for those aficionados of 70’s TV —  a floor wax that can turn itself into a dessert topping. )

Libraries have a number of core competencies that are complementary to fabrication.

  • Libraries have special competency in managing information. Fabrication technologies make information material and help make material objects into information.
  • Libraries support the research process. Use of fabrication technologies requires a core set of skills and knowledge (such as databases of models) outside of specific research domainsand requires skills and knowledge that are not in the sole domain  of any one discipline.
  • Libraries promote literacy broadly. And the use of fabrication technologies promote design, science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics.
  • Libraries are responsible for maintaining the scholarly record. The digitizations, designs, and models produced as part of rapid fabrication approaches can constitute unique & valuable parts of the scholarly record. 
  • Libraries create physical spaces designed for research and learning. Successful ‘makerspaces’ bring together accessible locations; thoughtfully designed space; curated hardware & software; skilled staff;  local information management; and global ‘reference’ knowledge.

The seminars provoked a lively discussion, and this is a promising area for  further experiments and pilot projects. The Program has invested in an MakerBot and 3d scanner for use in further exploration and pilot projects, and our program intern, is currently conducting a review of existing websites, policies, and documentation in support of rapid fabrication at other libraries.


[1] Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, Preliminary Report. <http://future.mit.edu>

[2] http://www.infodocket.com/2013/12/16/results-of-makerspaces-in-libraries-study-released/

[3] Lipson & Kerman, 2013. Fabricated. Wiley.

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