3D Printing with the Cloud

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3D printing seems to be blowing up the internet and the world right now. From owners printing prosthetic legs for their dogs, to a Sonic Screwdriver for our Teen Doctor Who Christmas Party, the applications and uses of this technology continue to excite and amaze us. My library was dropped into this new world when we received an open source RepRap MendelMax 3D printer through ICfL’s pilot Project, “Make It.” Nick Grove, another SPLAT member, works at the Meridian Library District. His library also participated in the “Make It” cohort. You can hear more about his experience in his post, 3D Printing in Libraries.

Immediately after having our 3D printer shipped to us, we couldn’t wait to bring it out into the community. We scheduled several school showings during Teen Tech Week 2014, and also brought it out for several of our in-house events and programs. Every teacher, student, and library member was dumbfounded that we had a 3D printer, and on the cool things it could do. But, we couldn’t find a way to make this technology widely accessible to our members. We asked a few members to print a design to get an idea of what it might take. Through many hours of blood, sweat, filament, and tears we were able to get great finished products to these members. But the process took a large amount of staff time and was clunky as far as members getting us the designs, getting the designs ready for printing, and having the members pay for the filament they used.

Fast forward a few months, and a networking opportunity at Gizmo-CDA, a Coeur d’ Alene Makerspace, has completely changed this story. I had the chance to meet Chris Walker, the CEO of Element Robot, when our hot pink 3D printer, Pinkie Pie, caught his eye. After some calibration with his tech guys, he was able to show off his Skyforge network. Basically, Skyforge is a cloud-based system that lets a library set policy, queue prints, control a 3D printer, and handle payment options.

Element Robot was good enough to let us test their network with our members before we started paying for a subscription. We wanted to know if our members were interested in actually doing 3D printing themselves, and if the Skyforge network would alleviate some of our concerns in bringing our 3D printer to the public. In short, our member’s interest was very high, and Skyforge took care of pretty much all of our concerns. Members of all ages jumped at the opportunity to print something that they wanted, with most of them finding designs on Thingiverse. Skyforge was able to dramatically streamline our 3D printing process as well. Skyforge allowed our members to upload designs, change settings like print density, orientation, and size, and also securely handles the money aspect of the transaction through Stripe, a service similar to Paypal. Skyforge being cloud-based allows our members to order a design from any internet-connected computer or device, and slashes the staff time necessary to get prints into the hands of our members.

Our library would have eventually found a way to let our members access the 3D printing technolgy without Skyforge. We had all of the technology in place, but the issue of staff time and having to wade through every second of the print from design to finished product just wasn’t a feasible service model. Skyforge was the right answer for our concerns, and their small team of dedicated and knowledgeable guys is worth looking into.