In a corner of Penn State’s Pattee Library Maker Commons, a floor-to-ceiling glass enclosure houses 32 3-D printers stacked three-high on shelves. Day and night they pump out vibrant, plastic figures, from model rockets to Millennium Falcons.
One door over in the Invention Studio, patrons use connectable, electronic pieces known as littleBits to link speakers, sensors and lights — among other technologies — to Lego blocks in order to develop prototypes of any concept they can think up.
Combined, these spaces are the Maker Commons, a new addition to Penn State’s library system. While 3-D printing has been on campus for a while, the $125,000 Maker Commons has the first 3-D printers available to students, faculty and staff from all Penn State campuses, free of charge.
The goal is simple: innovation and exploration.
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“Within the Media Commons, we’re trying to make sure that people with no previous experience in 3-D printing can really explore that medium,” said Ryan Wetzel, Penn State’s media and Maker Commons manager.
He cited the Invention Studio as the place for rapid prototyping — testing many iterations of a design quickly and without much waste. Patrons use pink littleBits for inputs, like buttons and sensors; green bits are outputs, adding lights and motors; and orange bits, known as “wires,” snap on to provide software and Web connectivity.
The 3-D printing lab provides a more permanent way to evaluate ideas.
Wetzel likes to think of integrating 3-D printing into classwork as “invention as homework,” and, indeed, students from all disciplines are seeing the Maker Commons included in their courses.
Students in engineering classes have come in to build model rockets, business students have developed phone and laptop cases, and technical English courses have used the Invention Studio for writing “how-tos” on the creation of new inventions. People can also come in with curiosity projects not linked to any subject.
The 3-D printing allows users to choose a design online — or develop their own if they understand the programming — and send it to the Commons for printing. There, the MakerBot printers squeeze out a starch-based, biodegradable plastic at a scalding 419 degrees Fahrenheit. The process is known as additive manufacturing, where the plastic from the printer head builds on plastic already laid down.
Because of the specificity of the process, mistakes are common and the plastic, if layered incorrectly, can come out looking like a pile of noodles.
“We call that spaghetti,” said Wetzel. “It’s very easy to fail at 3-D printing, but we turn that into a conversation.”
Typically, the conversation begins with a student mentor from the Makers in Residence Program, a peer-to-peer network where students with a passion for 3-D printing help those newer to the craft.
One of the mentors is Andrew Przyjemski, a freshman majoring in engineering science. As someone with two printers of his own at home, his interest was piqued when saw the 3-D printers waiting to be set up in the library. A few weeks later, he was on board as a consultant.
“A lot of people think they can 3-D print anything right off the bat,” said Przyjemski, “I have to kind of take them down a peg or two in order to be more realistic.”
A popular item for first-time printers, Przyjemski said, are Pokemon figurines. Wetzel added that while cartoon characters may not be the most useful thing to create, they often serve as a gateway to understanding 3-D printing.
Many times, a simple design can spark an interest and lead to repeated use of the Maker Commons. “For a lot of people, that’s the starting point to wrap their heads around the technology,” said Wetzel.
When students grasp the technology, said Wetzel, their design possibilities become relatively boundless, though limited to the printer’s size. Each MakerBot is about 2 feet in length and a little more than 1 foot in width and height, allowing prints with dimensions up to 9.9 by 7.8 inches, with a maximum height of 5.9 inches.
One art history student scanned files of works of art and buildings destroyed by Islamic State and used the 3-D printers to build small-scale replicas, preserving the lost pieces in tiny plastic form. Others have built chess pieces, architectural models, and blown-up look-alikes of virus cells for study in virology classes.
Przyjemski said 3-D printing opens doors to many opportunities. The technology is being tested for replicating human organs, building quick shelter when disasters strike, producing spare machine parts for the military, and streamlining clunky manufacturing processes.
Though the Maker Commons does not have the materials to print organs or heavy-duty machinery, and printing weaponry would violate the university’s conduct code, the printers have processed 1,500 successful prints, using 150 pounds of plastic more than 11,000 print hours since its soft launch in February.
Joseph Salem Jr., associate dean for learning undergraduate services and commonwealth campuses, said he believes the size and capacity of the commons creates the perfect “3-D printing backbone” for a university with as many people and campuses as Penn State has. The commons was created in partnership with Teaching and Learning with Technology
Wetzel said the space is “a common ground point” that can help students stay tech-fluent and train for mechanisms yet to be invented.
They will be able to take this and apply it to what’s next. And, eventually, I believe the sky’s the limit.
Ryan Wetzel, Penn State’s media and Maker Commons manager
“They will be able to take this and apply it to what’s next,” said Wetzel, “And, eventually, I believe the sky’s the limit.”
Noelle Rosellini is a Penn State journalism student.