Printing Building Blocks For The Future: New Grants Bring 3D Technology To Border Libraries

By Lorne Matalon
March 30, 2016
Lorne Matalon
Lorne Matalon
The grants bringing 3D printers to southwest border libraries are specifically designed to introduce young people to a technology that is expected to transform manufacturing.
Lorne Matalon
Marfa Public Library director Mandy Roane helps the children refine their designs on a computer before 3D printing begins. Roane says the new printers are helping to transform libraries in ways that go beyond books, DVDs and the web.

MARFA. Texas  --  Funding to buy computers and software for schools in rural borderlands is often scarce, making it all the more exciting that several public libraries on the border in Arizona and Texas have received federal and state grants for 3D printers.

At least five border town libraries, from Yuma, Arizona to West Texas, have received these grants, making them a magnet for 3D printing technology.

"I think it’s a way to create stuff your own way, so instead of going out to buy something, you can make it your own," said 10 year old Francis Benton at the public library in tiny Marfa, Texas.

Marfa is one of most visited small towns in the country. Contemporary art, ranching and Mexican culture intersect here. But Marfa is also in a hardscrabble border county. For this town's library, the technology improvement grant is a boon.

"Just offering books and movies and even internet access isn’t enough anymore," said Marfa librarian Mandy Roane. “Libraries really have to expand what they they’re doing. And a lot of libraries are going towards being 'maker spaces,' where you can make things, create things with your hands and 3D printers are a really good place where a lot of libraries start."

With 3D printing technology, design plans are uploaded from a computer to the printer-- the same process used when printing paper documents. The printer then layers plastics and chemicals with an instrument that resembles a hot glue gun. The 3D printer is instructed to create objects in three dimensions such as car parts or cutlery. Or in the case of the children at the Marfa Public Library, plastic replica cats.

"Francis is going to make two cats so we can each have one of them because we both like cats," said 10 year old Victor Culbertson excitedly.

He wasn't let down.

Francis shared the design details for the figurine cats the pair was crafting together-- "A circle for the head, a cylinder for the neck, and a circle for the body which turned out to be an oval. And then I’m going to make another one and give it to Victor."

Along with small figurines and toys, children at other 3D printer-equipped libraries have also made puzzles. The new grants bring an emerging technology to children to inspire creativity, and also introduce them to a technology that’s changing industry.

Nike has a new patent to print running shoes, GE is printing aircraft parts, a 3D printed car is in production near Phoenix, and state university systems in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are also heavily invested.

“It may end up reinventing some of our manufacturing sector, " explained Joe Hahn, a professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Hahn also said this technology is relatively nascent in terms of mass commercial applicability.

"I don’t know how you can manufacture things that have complex internal workings and moving parts. I don’t know that they have the ability to do that just yet, but that is one of those things like self-driving cars that I look forward to seeing where we’re going to go with it," he continued.

Cars that drive themselves may be a way off, but 3D printing is already used on a commercial scale to make something that sounds like the future is already here: replacement human tissue.

The University of Texas at San Antonio has just received a 3D printer that can reproduce tissue and print human cells in a dry environment so that the cells can be stored for long periods before they’re used.

Lisa Harouni is the CEO of Digital Forming, a UK software company. She says human implants like transplant organs are also being made commercially.

"Typically, an implant is more effective within the body if it's more porous, because our body tissue will grow into it. There's a lower chance of rejection. With 3D printing, we are seeing today that we can create much better implants. And in fact because we can create one-offs, we can create implants that are specific to individuals," she told a TED Talk.

3D is also in space. A Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off from Kazakhstan March 18 ferrying new crew members and a 3D printer to the International Space Station. The crew will craft tools and parts.

And NASA is experimenting with printed food for astronauts-- something young Francis Benton, back in the Marfa library, already knew about.

"They have little food cartridges, one is cheese, one’s red sauce, and it lays down the dough and then it outs down the tomato sauce and then it puts the cheese and it automatically cooks, that’s how hot it is," Benton explained.

“I thought it was like, 'Wow!' I couldn’t believe that a 3D printer could actually make it like that," said 8 year old Louise Culbertson after printing a figurine she designed.

The new grants are bringing a taste of cutting edge technology to children in a region where libraries typically run on extremely low budgets, places that otherwise couldn’t even think of buying a piece of equipment that is by all accounts, a building block to tomorrow’s industrial technology.