I t sounds like someone’s polishing a thick window, but there’s an undertone like shots fired from a far-off laser-blaster, plus whirs and beeps and digital squeaks.
This tiny commotion is coming from a cubic foot of futurism: a MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D printer, housed at the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library, where it’s being used to teach kids the ins and outs of the technology. Framed in dark metal, sided with transparent glass and finished with a spiffy red backlight, the printer is feeding a spool of blue plastic filament onto a central platform within the box. The print job? A tiny robot figurine.
3D printing recently gained mainstream awareness for its mind-blowing potential applications: creating live-tissue, donor-compatible organs from scratch. Producing industrial-quality parts at home. Maybe even printing up some dinner. But as new as it seems to most of us, the technology has been in development since the mid-80s, when Charles Hull, the father of the tech, pioneered “a system for generating three-dimensional objects by creating a cross-sectional pattern of the object to be formed.” He called it “stereolithography.”
This basic concept is still at work in 3D printers today. The MakerBot at the NHFPL reads user-created cross-sectioned designs, then builds up their layers one by one. Purchased with funds gifted by Alexion Pharmaceuticals (headquartered in Cheshire at the moment, but moving to New Haven in 2015), for now the printer’s use is geared towards special classes comprised of kids aged 8 to 15. Marie Jarry, the young minds manager at the NHFPL, says she sees particular value in the program for its alignment with “STEM education—science, technology, engineering and math. That’s where the careers are going to be in the future.”
In July, classes for 16 have been scheduled for 6-7:30 p.m. on Mondays and 1-2:30 p.m.on Fridays at the library’s 133 Elm Street address. This first round of sessions filled up quickly, we’re told, while the next move in the library’s deployment of the MakerBot is uncertain. “We’re going to see how these July classes go and decide where to take things from there,” Jarry says.
Self-described 3D printing enthusiast Randy Pareja (pictured above), who uses the technology in his career as a bridge designer and cavorts with other tech and mechanical hobbyists at local educational outfit MakeHaven, is leading the classes with help from roaming assistants Gary Barbour and Bill Beckett. His goal is to familiarize kids with the entire process, from conception to design to fabrication.
At a kickoff announcement and demonstration, Pareja programmed the printer to forge a key chain—a 37-minute project. Children gathered around the MakerBot to watch its extruder—think of it like an applicator—spray the plastic filament, each momentarily liquefied layer a bit like a spider web. At the event, library board president Claudia Merson said, “We’re so lucky to have something so new and cutting-edge to share with the community.”
It’s a small and local slice of that cutting edge, anyway, but also an important one, seeing as the technology is already changing the world. A company in China has constructed a whopping 1,728-cubic-meter 3D printer to be used for fabricating small houses and other buildings. NASA is offering grants to encourage the development of food designs for astronauts to print in space. In Finland, printers are routinely used to create dental implants, crowns and bridges. UK communications company OwnFone offers what it says is the first mobile phone for the blind, with 3D-printed braille features. A New York-based company, Shapeways, has opened a “3D printing marketplace and community,” allowing designers to sell original goods made with the company’s printers, including intricate jewelry designs in gold, silver and platinum, among many other interesting and creative products.
In a world where mastery of this technology is increasingly valuable, it’s good to see a cadre of young New Haveners getting a few layers’ head start.
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.