Behind the scenes at Chicago's Maker Lab

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When I first heard about 3D printing, the concept seemed paradoxical. To me, “printing” means ink on paper. The slight texture of that ink aside, “printing” seems inherently 2D.

So what in the world was “3D printing”? What did that term even mean? What would it replace? And how in the hell would it work?

I found my answers at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. In July, the library opened their new “Maker Lab,” a space described on the library’s website as their version of a hackerspace or makerspace, “a community-oriented workspace where people with common interests, often in technology and science, come together to learn and collaborate,” forming “a technology-based extension of the do-it-yourself movement.”

As such, the Maker Lab offered library patrons inexpensive access to laser cutting, vinyl cutting, milling and, of course, 3D printing.

I visited the Maker Lab late last year and spoke with CPL commissioner Brian Bannon, who explained the impact the lab was having on users, particularly the impact of 3D printers: “Anything you can imagine you can create,” Bannon said about the technology. “What these machines allow us to do is essentially help people understand the concept of invention in a 3D technology world.”

So far, that understanding had eluded me. The stories I read about 3D printing tended to focus on the circumstances of its existence (“It’s here! And it costs $and looks like _.”), its bizarre uses (“Make your own food!”), or its dangerous uses (“Make your own guns!”).

But as I toured the lab and watched users at work – something I did again in November – my understanding of the everyday uses of 3D printing came into focus.

If you’re new to the 3D printing game, here are the three key ideas to understand:

3D printing is best described as a hot glue gun funneled through a laser printer. In order to understand 3D printing and its uses, you have to adjust your understanding of the word “printing.” At least I did. Imagine what it looks like to watch your regular printer print a document. It’s the same with 3D printing, though instead of printing onto an external surface (a sheet of paper, for instance), the printing surface is the item itself. In other words, if you’re having trouble conceptualizing “3D printing,” it’s helpful to focus less on what you know about “printing” and more on what you know about “3D.”

3D printing is about creation. Bannon explains: “[3D printing] is part of advanced manufacturing. It’s also part of what many think is one of the future components of [America] staying competitive in the knowledge economy.” Like any new technology, the uses of 3D printing will evolve as more people work with it. While 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, the current 3D printing revolution is due to 3D printers becoming affordable, home technologies. And when a technological advance reaches the public, the public then redefines its use and impact. For recent examples, think about the difference between the public’s initial perception of an iPad (a slick, geek toy) to the current perception (a tool for business & sales presentations). Or consider the evolution of Facebook, from a frivolous flirtation facilitator for college kids to an avenue for social change to simply a fundamental piece of day-to-day life.

In order to understand 3D printing, the best approach is to simply see what people make with it. When I visited the lab in September, one person was making jewelry based on her own designs; one was designing a video game character; one was creating a gear wheel; one was creating a circuit board; and in a meta touch, one was creating a piece of a 3D printer. Other notable uses include footwear, clothing, iPhone cases, or – much more spectacularly – human tissue.

Take a look at the range of creations I saw when I visited the lab:

  • Arturo Duarte, a 24-year-old Harold Washington College architect major, was creating a pinhole camera.
  • Abeer Alhuzali, a 28-year-old University of Illinois Chicago computer science student, was creating a robot prototype to teach kids about genetics.
  • Albert Ryou, 24, and Graham Greve, 21, a pair of physics students at University of Chicago, were working on an “optical experiment.” “We need some kind of a mold,” explained Ryou, “and we’re making that mold out of plastic, because it requires great resolution and certain angles that I can’t make in our machine shop.” The pair says they could have used medal to make their molding, but that would have taken two days. Printing their mold with a 3D printer takes two hours.
  • Tommy Stanton, a 32-year-old Trekkie, was printing his own Stark Trek badge to wear on his Star Trek costume for Trekkie conventions.

Most interesting, though, was a pair of 11-year-old twin brothers, Van Myers and Elvis Wolcott, working on projects for their school science fair. Wolcott’s project is a remote-controlled robot. “I’m printing out a gear box for the wheels,” he said. For the rest of the robot, “I’m probably going to use some plywood, and then I’m using two micro-controllers. One is the Raspberry Pi, and the other is the Arduino Uno. Then I purchased a motor shield, which allows the Arduino Uno to control up to four motors at once.” He is then going to program the robot to use a wi-fi connection for the commands. Without 3D printing, he said, he would have to buy a ready-made gear box, or cut it out of wood.

As cool as that sounds, it was Myers’s project that illuminated the future of practical innovation. “We’re in a robotics competition, which is centered around innovating on natural disasters,” Myers explained. “So I created a sewer system that wouldn’t release sewage into flood waters when it overflowed but would still let water in.”

Myers used 3D modeling software to design “a regular sewer,” and then added new features “so it wouldn’t back up.” He explained that with 3D printing, “I can create models for a few dollars and I don’t have to have a lot of tools. I can come here and create something, test it, make a few changes, and come back the next day and test it again until I have a successful model.”

While the revolution appears to be the technology, to Bannon, it’s all about the effect on people. “We’ve got artists coming in, and they want to create jewelry,” he said. “You’ve got engineers creating circuit boards. You’ve got scientists creating cell structures. These are all people coming together and learning together, and they come from different fields.

“Many believe that that’s what the future of innovation is: you find physical places where there’s a confluence of different perspectives and schools of thought, and they come together and that’s where new innovations and new ideas is formed. The cross-section. It happens with the 3D printing. It’s not something we hypothesized would happen, but that’s what’s happening in this space.”

Indeed. The future is always defined by the effects technology has on people, rather than the technology itself. And just how students in the 1980s took desktop computers for granted while their parents stared in slack-jawed awe, the next generation of scientists like Myers and Wolcott interact with 3D printing by focusing on the procedure of their projects rather than the technology making it possible.

“I first saw it when I was 9,” Wolcott said. “It kind of surprised me, but after I talked to the guy who owned it, it made more sense.”

And with that, he returned to his work station and continued designing his robot.

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Jack M Silverstein

Jack M Silverstein is a staff writer for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. From 2012 to 2013, he was a contributing sportswriter at RedEye. His work has appeared in ChicagoSide, the Chicago Sun-Times, ChicagoNow, and Time Out Chicago. Say hey @readjack.