Libraries around the world are democratizing access to this advanced technology, which can often be too expensive for many people to experience its benefits for themselves.
However, a successful library 3D printing program is more than just a 3D printer. Where it is located, who has access, staff responsibilities and management costs are other keys to its widespread adoption.
If you run a library, you may be hesitant to introduce a new technology that comes with a unique set of challenges in a public space, but here in this article we'll explain what to look for in library-friendly 3D printers, the grants that can help about the purchase of a library 3D printer, public safety and oversight policies, and the software available to monitor what is being printed. Plus our recommendations for the best printers for every library.
But first, let's take a look at some public libraries and how they approach 3D printing.
3D Printer Libraries: How It Works
Partnership with local experts
When the Hoboken, New Jersey Public Library unveiled the results of its $7 million renovations in 2023, staff proudly pointed to the new MakerBot 3D Printer Additive Technology Space, the city's first permanent free public 3D printing space. The library is partnering with the Hoboken Maker Bar, a local nonprofit that will set up shop at the library to offer training and programs in 3D printing, as well as robotics and other technologies.
3D Makerspace by appointment only
At the Columbus Public Library's new building in Columbus, Ohio, is offering a range of new services for traveling to a recording studio to create podcasts. Its new 3D printers will be located in two new library areas that will be available for use by appointment only, presumably to better monitor usage.
3D printing for a small fee
In Rapid City, South Dakota, the public library offers a place for additive manufacturing with 3D printers, where visitors can either bring their 3D models or create them on site. The library's dedicated staff assist users by running the models through the necessary software and, for a small fee, bring these creations to life in three dimensions.
3D Printing Community Events
Several libraries around Sydney, Australia have 3D printers as a star attraction at free community events. One branch hosts an expert instructor to teach the basics of 3D printing, while another branch offers a one-hour workshop every Thursday called "Learn 3D Printing for Adults." Bonnyrigg Library Branch hosts a weekly 3D Printing Club meeting where like-minded people can learn and talk about 3D printing.
3D printing restrictions apply
The Octavia library branch in Los Angeles, California has a makerspace with two MakerBot Replicator+ 3D printers that library members can reserve in person or by phone. Although it is a DYI space, members submit their designs to the staff for approval. During your 3D printing appointment, the lab staff will check that they are printing the correct object at the correct scale and that your digital file is not something that is prohibited by law, infringes on the intellectual property rights of others, or is "inappropriate" for the library environment. 3D printing costs are determined by the length of the print.
Print Eligibility Orientation Class
At the Washington Public Library, anyone who wants access to the Fabrication Lab's UltiMaker 3D printers must attend a 90-minute introductory class covering the basics of the machine. Only then can you save time for printing. The first steps to using 3D printers are to fill out a form and review the safety guidelines.
Limited sustainability materials
The Denver Public Library used to limit 3D printer use to staff, but recently opened it up to library members for use in its new Idea Lab, as long as they've gone through training. The library also limits the printing material to PLA only because it is relatively recyclable, generally bio-based, and has less fumes when printing. Patrons are limited to making parts that will only take two hours or less to 3D print.
What to look for in library 3D printers
If you are an expert in information resources, you cannot be expected to be an expert in 3D printing. If you're tasked with purchasing a 3D printer or several to start your new 3D printing service or upgrade an existing one, here's what you need to know when buying a 3D printer.
Budget: What grants and funding are available? We will dwell on this in the next section, as it is often possible to apply for financial assistance when purchasing equipment. If you have the money to spend, this can tip the scales in favor of a higher quality printer. Within your budget, consider the cost of purchasing a customer support package, any software licenses, spare parts and materials.
Number: What is the ideal number of printers to buy? Needs vary dramatically; a public library in a small town may use one consistently, but a busy technical library at a respected university will likely need more. When buying multiple printers for the same location, it's a good idea to check that they can connect to each other and be controlled and monitored by the same software.
Software: The 3D printer won't come with design software, but it will come with slicing software, which is the part that takes the digital design and turns it into instructions for the printer. However, if you have computers in your library, you may also want to offer some of the free computer-aided design software often used to create 3D printing designs.
Upgradable: If the 3D printer is successful in its chosen location, can you advance and offer more? It's important to be able to upgrade digital tools over time, so be sure to check if your manufacturer provides upgraded models.
Materials: How suitable and how affordable are the materials for each printer? This is a key consideration. Sometimes only proprietary materials should be used, while in other cases almost any material is applicable. Cheaper isn't always better, and you might consider offering only more sustainable material options, such as recycled filament or bio-based PLA. Also, think about what you will do with all the plastic waste generated by 3D printers.
Speed. A part can be printed on some 3D printers, but it takes hours on one. If you anticipate high demand for 3D printed parts, you'll want to consider a fast machine(s).
Emissions: 3D printers produce emissions as they operate, and while some may be harmless, research shows that others may cause health concerns. Make sure you assess how ventilated the area the printer is located is and what steps can be taken to mitigate the problems. Consider an enclosed 3D printer with a HEPA filter if it will be in an open public space.
Sound: 3D printers are often placed within sight of library staff so they can monitor usage, so it can't be too noisy in a library. Some 3D printers are extremely noisy, with buzzing, shuffling and constant beeps. Most manufacturers should provide an overall sound rating.
Subsidies to help purchase your library 3D printer
We know about the huge potential value that 3D printers can offer, but at what cost? Libraries often need help funding them, and while installing new technology is a dream, keeping the lights on is a priority.
Nevertheless, it is very achievable, and if a library can demonstrate the benefits a machine can bring to its patrons and community, there are grants to help. There is also the idea of charging a nominal fee to use the printers and print parts, which can help pay for the machine and coating materials.
Here are some places to start
- Library Services and Technology Act The US Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) is the only US federal program exclusively for libraries. Administered by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, state libraries can use the funds to support initiatives across the country, including 3D printers and 3D printing training.
- The MakerBot 2023 Grants Guide Perfect for school and university libraries, MakerBot's new 2023 Grant Guide outlines over 40 funding opportunities needed to get started in 3D printing. There are grants for 3D printers, additional materials like filament and extruders, training, and more.
- The Libraries Engagement Grant Transforms Communities This annual grant of $2000 from the American Library Association (ALA) supports community engagement projects with a specific theme each year in school, community, academic, tribal, and special libraries.
- Brown Rudnick Center Foundation Community Grant Proposals for this community grant, with a maximum amount of $2000, must fund a specific, one-time need or idea to improve education in underserved communities in Boston, Providence, Hartford, New York, Washington, DC, Orange County or London (UK).
- The European Challenge 2024 The European Challenge is an annual program open to applications from any European library, whether public, mobile, rural, school, university, prison, municipal or national. It aims to work with communities to collaboratively solve a challenge and has €10,000 available, along with workshops, mentoring sessions and exchange opportunities.
- State Farm Science Technology Engineering and Math Initiative (STEM) State Farm Community Grants are open to educational institutions that promote a STEM interdisciplinary approach to learning, with rigorous academic concepts combined with real-world lessons in science, technology, engineering and math.
Public safety and supervision
The last thing you need is a user burning themselves on a 3D printer or printing something illegal like gun parts. Good policies and safeguards can mitigate these risks.
Many examples and resources are available online for guidance, but we've summarized some of the most important ones here.
Purpose: It is a good idea to explain the reason for introducing 3D printing to the library's resource collection. As touched upon in this article, this can be as an educational tool, a window into the design process, engaging curious creatives, or more. This mission statement should be a positive illustration of what is possible, outlining the intended parameters for its use.
Access: Who has the right to operate the library's 3D printer? Will staff be available to assist with the process? Are there training requirements before use? A clear purpose of the equipment will help define these specifics in each library. Most libraries require patrons to have a library card to use, just as they do to check out books.
Law: As a precaution, it is essential to clearly state in the policy (which users will sign and is published) that any illegal use of 3D printing is prohibited, including the manufacture of weapon parts. In addition to what is illegal, you may want to prohibit the printing of anything that may infringe on someone's intellectual property or copyright.
Safety: What use of 3D printing machines is permissible? The policy, consistent with broader existing library policies, should anticipate potential misuse and detail the intended operations of the 3D printer. While some libraries only allow staff to work directly with the machines, others require a safety and usage orientation before allowing patrons to work directly with the 3D printers.
Price: Fees should be clearly communicated and there is a wide range of options. You can set a machine usage fee per hour, a fee based on the weight of the finished part, a fee for each hour it takes to print a part, or a fee for the staff time needed to facilitate printing.
Lead time: In any library, the time it takes to print a component can depend on multiple influences, including the printer, other files in the queue, their size, the number of parts, and their complexity. Communicating these factors will avoid unexpected delays. How long it will take to print a part is provided by the slicing software in advance, so you can reject parts or reschedule them if they could take four hours or more.
Responsibility: As the policy may define the conditions under which the service must operate, it should also state that the library is not responsible for the quality of printed parts, illegal infringements, including copyright, privacy, intellectual property and cyber security, by those who who do not adhere to this policy.
Here are some good choices ALL3DPro , suitable for most public libraries. All of these tend to be on the economic side of 3D printing, but these are the machines with more established reliability, near-one-click printing, and a wide user audience, so your customers may already be familiar with them, or there are many online resources to to turn to.
We do not recommend resin 3D printers for libraries due to the fumes and potential for mess. If you plan to allow the public to touch the printers unattended, we would recommend an enclosure machine.
Bambu Lab P1P
Bambu Lab burst onto the 3D printing scene in 2022 and broke the market with a series of machines that just work. In a laboratory (at ALL3DPro ) we found them to be quick, easy, quick and reliable. For your library, you'll get all of this for a pretty low price. What you won't find is the huge user base of some of the more established brands, and for support you may need to rely on a 3D printer distributor like Matterhackers or Dynamism, or us at 3MG Bonev Ltd, but for ease of use it's good choice.
The P1P has 300°C all-metal hot ends that can handle a wide range of materials. It also has Wi-Fi connectivity and is also compatible with Bambu Lab's four-material Automatic Material System (AMS) for multi-color prints. The latest version of the P1P comes with a flexible PEI-coated plate for easy part removal, automatic bed leveling, a camera to monitor the working chamber and an LED light bar.
If your budget allows, we'd also recommend checking out the Bambu Lab X1 Carbon. For the P1P, you pay about $400 less, but you give up the lidar sensor, the case with a glass top, the large touchscreen and other features like the high-quality camera.
If you want to enable your library patrons to be able to print usable replacement parts or objects from really durable materials like carbon fiber polyamide, look no further than UltiMaker. UltiMaker S3, the smallest in the company's S series, is a professional and reliable desktop 3D printer with very good support, options and features. It is a popular machine that is easy to use.
This machine offers close to 3D one-touch printing with a wide range (300+) of materials because there is a pre-built recipe of settings for each material, so there is no manual setting or guesswork. It has dual extruders so you can print with easy-to-remove support material.
UltiMaker S3 is designed so that anyone can achieve high-quality results after a 30-minute introduction. If you plan to let your customers handle the machine, this is a good option. It has an easy touch interface and intuitive software.
If you like the idea and features of the UltiMaker, but the S3 is a bit out of your budget, take a look at the similarly sized and single UltiMaker 2+ Connect extruder. This version has almost the same features, but won't print with really strong materials.
UltiMaker MakerBot Sketch Large
The MakerBot Sketch Large, released in 2022 as a larger version of the company's popular Sketch, is large enough to print multiple projects at once. This machine is popular among schools mainly because it comes with an ecosystem of lesson plans and teacher support. If you plan to teach 3D printing in your library, Sketch is the perfect option.
The Sketch Large also comes with MakerBot CloudPrint, a cloud-based software that requires no software installation or account creation and lets you upload design files to your library, view them, and send them to the printer from your desk, where you can also monitor the printing progress. The machine also features a closed chamber, heated and flexible build plate, built-in camera, material sensors, and Wi-Fi and USB capabilities.
If we had to find a downside to this machine, it would be the expensive proprietary materials that are limited to PLA only and sell for around $60 each (good PLA is usually around $20). It also only has one extruder, which means that the supports that are often necessary for a successful print job can take a bit of practice to remove.
On the other hand, customer support is included in the price, so you'll always have someone to help you troubleshoot any problems you might have with your printer. You will also have access to an extensive collection of 3D printing educational resources. If you like the Sketch but the price is a bit high, you can go for the smaller Sketch.