Every day, it seems, there is more cool stuff that you can 3D print — from wedding cake toppers based on a 3D scan of you and your betrothed to replicas of fossils in museums to personalized iPhone cases — if only you had a 3D printer. And who does?
Not many people, but publicly accessible 3D printers are popping up all over the country, at places ranging from libraries to makerspaces to small businesses that liken themselves to internet cafés for 3D printing.
It's not just libraries in big centres like Edmonton, Toronto and Ottawa that are offering 3D printing now, but even smaller communities like Sudbury and Kitchener, Ont., and towns right across Nova Scotia, from Yarmouth to Sydney.
Ab Velasco, who helped set up the Digital Innovation Hub at the Toronto Reference Library that includes 3D printers, said it's just a continuation of what libraries have always done.
"Libraries were one of first places to offer free access to computers, internet, wifi… and so offering access to other new emerging technologies — it's just a natural fit," said Velasco.
Personalized chess set, TV mount
Mike Ross is co-ordinator for the program that offers access to a 3D printer at the Colchester-East Hants Public Library in Truro, N.S. Since the printer was installed in 2012, people have printed all kinds of things from a personalized chess set based on the Magic: The Gathering card game to parts to repair a dishwasher or mount a TV, he said. The City of Truro has even used it to print out waterproof cases to protect devices designed to provide the town with public wireless internet access.
Alex Lai, digital design technician at the Fort York Branch of the Toronto Public Library, said nameplates and jewelry have been popular with library users. One couple even scanned themselves holding hands using the library's 3D scanner and printed out a custom cake topper for their upcoming wedding.
Since the Toronto Public Library started providing access to its 3D printers in February, there have been huge waiting lists for the 60-minute certification "class" that library users have to take before getting access to the 3D printers.
Mike Harvie is one Toronto library user keen to take advantage of his new access to 3D printing. On a sunny August morning, he came into the Fort York branch of the library with a file he downloaded from the popular website Thingiverse, eager to 3D print an object for the very first time. Thingiverse offers free printable 3D models of objects ranging from toys to jewelry to home decor.
Harvie said he's interested in having access to the printer in case something small gets broken around the house and he needs a spare part.
But he wanted to do a test project first – "to see the texture and sturdiness of it," he explained.
He considered making a toy for his two-year-old son, but changed his mind and decided to make something for himself — a case for his smartphone-sized Raspberry Pi computer.
Lai was on hand to help Harvie out.
He asked Harvie to pick what colour plastic to use. He chose red. They then discussed which way up it should print to minimize the amount of time and plastic and therefore the cost. Because the entire project would take longer than the two-hour time limit, they decided to start with the bottom half of the case and print the top half another time.
Then, with a push of a button, the print job started.
As the print head of the microwave-oven-sized MakerBot printer moved back and forth, squirting out red plastic layer by layer, half a dozen other library users popped by for a look.
"Oh wow, that's amazing," said Nomi Drory, an art teacher and designer who had never seen a 3D printer before. She was quick to ask about how she could sign up for a library workshop.
An hour later, Harvie was invited to peel his case off the tray with a spatula.
"I think it's going to work out pretty good," he said as he examined it.
In addition to casual users printing knick-knacks, at the library entrepreneurs and engineering students have created prototypes of devices such as smart watches for a fraction of the price that it would cost to print commercially. The library charges just $1 per print job plus 5 cents a minute.
Both Ross and Velasco say they have a wide range of users, from kids to seniors.
"We definitely have a lot of people who are newcomers to technology, who have never seen a 3D printer before," Velasco said. "Because we're the library, generally we are a space for everybody… there's less of an intimidation level to use the technology."
New makerspaces opening
Unfortunately, not every community has a 3D printer in their library yet. But in many of those communities, the public can still get access to 3D printers at clubs called hackerspaces or makerspaces, which exist in most major cities across the country.
"Part of it is just the access to the technology is becoming more affordable," said Derek Gaw, cofounder of MakerLabs.
Using a makerspace is more expensive than using 3D printers at the library — MakerLabs, which is for-profit, charges $100 per month. Non-profit makerspaces such as Regina's Crashbanglabs and Calgary's Protospace charge as little as $30 and $50 a month respectively.
But for that price, members typically get access not just to 3D printers, but often a wide range of other equipment, such as laser and plasma cutters, said Ben Eadie, who is on the board of directors for the Protospace hacker space in Calgary: "You could literally build a vehicle from scratch in that place."
Many members are also very experienced with different kinds of equipment.
"The people in the library can't necessarily help you out to the same level that Protospace can," he said. He added that the club has a variety of members, some as young as nine years old, and he encourages anyone interested in 3D printing to come in and try it.
'Internet café for 3D printers'
Finally, for those who want to avoid the commitment of a club and the waiting lists of the library, there are a few other options, such as Toronto's MakeLab.
"It's essentially like an internet café for 3D printers," said Jonathan Moneta, creative lead for the business that offers 3D printing workshops and one-on-one training, as well as assistance with preparing models for 3D printing.
"You can really just stop in, take a short training course and then parachute in whenever you need to use the 3D printer."
He said the facility is popular with entrepreneurs, partly because they can use multiple 3D printers at once to test different versions of an object.
On the other end, MakeLab's couples' workshops are popular on date nights and kids who drag their parents in to print out physical versions of things they built in the video game Minecraft.
Other companies that primarily serve businesses sometimes also offer workshops for the general public, including Toronto's Hot Pop Factory. It has hosted special events like a "3D printed kissing booth" where participants were encouraged to scan themselves while kissing and print out a model.
With so many options, just about anyone should be able to try 3D printing for the first time. It's just a matter of figuring out what to print and where. For some ideas, check out our photo gallery.