CHEYENNE - The Laramie County Library System has long prided itself for its early adoption of technology, from computers to e-books and everything in between.
And those efforts have continued this year with the library's recent acquisition of a 3D printer. The device is capable of taking three-dimensional designs and rendering them in hard plastic using an extrusion and layering process.
While 3D printing technology has been around for years, it's only recently that such printers have become affordable for consumer use. And since open-source software makes it easier than ever to design 3D objects on a computer, the library has sought to bring both the design and production concepts to patrons as part of a push to create a "maker space" for children and adults.
"Last August we were at the Denver Public Library at a conference about being on the leading edge of library technology," said Andrew Asquith, teen services coordinator for the Laramie County Library. "They had a music recording studio, video game creation, two Makerbots there. That's really when we saw how it could be done, and it was a big influence on us."
The Makerbot is a consumer-grade 3D printer that the library purchased earlier this summer, thanks to a donation from patron Gregory Dyekman.
Like most 3D printers, it works by heating plastic and then spreading it in hundreds of thin layers, a process that can take hours, depending on the object it's printing and the level of detail involved.
As to what kind of objects it can print, Asquith said that's limited only to the user's imagination. For example, Asquith presented a 20-sided die he designed that includes standard numerals as well as Braille dots.
Asquith said there are many ways to acquire 3D designs for the Makerbot. Many free programs are available, allowing people to create designs from scratch, but there are also online repositories of premade designs available to download.
"You can go to Thingiverse, which is an online community with all sorts of different designs," Asquith said. "We're also working on getting a process in place where we can use Minecraft to build something and then print what you built."
A popular computer game, Minecraft allows users to use building blocks to create landscapes like beaches, forests or mountains as well as structures. But creative users also can use the game to create giant versions of popular video game characters, elaborate fantasy manors or even sprawling cities.
And with a software tool called Printcraft, Asquith said any of those creations can be transmitted to the Makerbot and turned into real objects.
"You just click 'print' and what it does is send you a file in the language the 3D printer uses," Asquith said. "We want to get teens exposed to it and show them all the different things they can do with it."
Given that games like Minecraft are already very popular among teens and young adults, Asquith and Beth Cook, the library's manager of youth and outreach services, said it makes sense to develop programming geared toward teens using the 3D printer.
"When we look at the community, we're working on getting a children's museum. But the next closest children's science museum is in Denver, and that's not always feasible for people to access," Cook said. "Having this device allows them to be able to experience things they may not be able to in their own homes or at school or anywhere else in Cheyenne."
Later this month, Asquith said the plan is to begin holding programs to introduce teens to the 3D printer and some of the programs they can use to design for it.
At 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, he plans to begin with an introduction to "SketchUp," a free-to-use 3D modeling program used for architecture, mechanical and video game design.
"We'll have computers with the software downloaded on them, and I can show patrons some of the basic tools. We'll let them play around and see what they can do with it," Asquith said. "They can also download it for free at home, and they can even email their designs to me. I can look them over to make sure they're watertight, then print them out."
Going forward, Asquith said he hopes to introduce new programs to teens, such as the aforementioned Printcraft, as well as sessions that focus on designing specific types of things, like custom chess pieces.
"Hopefully, moving forward we can do challenges for them and kind of integrate other stuff like Lego blocks or have them design custom cellphone cases," Asquith said.