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posted: 11/25/2013 11:56 AM

Interest in 3-D printing technology growing

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  • The Harold Washington Library Center's Innovation Lab which was a 2013 winner of the Chicago Innovation Awards.

    The Harold Washington Library Center's Innovation Lab which was a 2013 winner of the Chicago Innovation Awards.
    Courtesy of Chicago Public Library


Amy Mueller's sixth-grade students at Hoover Math & Science Academy in Schaumburg wanted to know, "Who invented the 3-D printer?"

A prosthetic leg, colorful gym shoes, a toy race car and plastic necklaces are just a few of the infinite number of commercial and consumer products manufactured using 3-D printing technology.

While traditional manufacturing techniques remove material to create a product, 3-D printing is called additive technology -- it pumps out layers and builds on new layers to construct a 3-D product like a plastic gnome or a full-sized motorcycle.

3-D printing was developed by Chuck Hull, owner of California-based 3-D Systems, as a way to manufacture inexpensive parts to keep the U.S. auto industry competitive. Hull called it "stereolithography" and secured the first 3-D printing patent in 1986.

Consumer interest for 3-D printers is growing, with prices for printers ranging from about $800 and soaring up into the thousands. This year, the industry is expected to sell 50,000 printers, with consumer sales expected to top $133 million in the coming year.

3-D printing classes and open lab time are available in Chicago's Harold Washington Public Library Center's third floor Innovation Lab.

Andrea Senz, first deputy commissioner of the Chicago Public Library, said the library became a tech hub and 3-D printer teaching center.

"The library's Better Life committee tapped into the national movement related to do-it-yourself activities and an interest in technology. Top of the list of recommendations was to have an environment with a 3-D printer, vinyl cutter, laser cutter and milling machine," she said.

The Chicago Public Library Foundation was awarded a grant to get the tech lab off the ground.

While you can't check it out like a book or movie, you can use the library's MakerBot 3-D printer. Once you've been trained, you can use the machine during the open lab times. The Innovation Lab is extremely busy, with 18,000 visitors since it opened this summer.

Mark Andersen, division chief of business, science and technology at the Chicago Public Library explained the popularity: "The big bang is to expose people to this -- prices are coming down but no one I know has one in their house."

People understand how a library works, and are more likely to try new ideas when presented in a familiar setting. Senz said she's had a lot of patrons confide that they were interested in learning more, but are intimidated by the technology.

"One patron said 'I would never have been able to feel comfortable in a tech environment but you gave me an opportunity to come in with no knowledge and learn,'" Senz said.

Classes offer lessons in making rings, earrings, necklaces and other consumer items. Patrons have used the MakerBot to make parts for the MakerBot, and one user designed a holder that contains items needed for the printer, library officials said.

"We've got a guy making a 3-D printer using the 3-D printer," Andersen said.

Anyone can sign up for the Chicago Public Library 3-D printing classes -- there's no requirement to have a Chicago Public Library card or any library card, Senz said.

"We just hope if you don't have one that you'll consider getting one," she said.

To find out more about the tech machine classes, see the website, click on the Innovation Lab box, see Maker Lab classes and workshops.