3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is a process of creating solid, three dimensional objects, layer by layer, from a 3D digital model. This technology is transforming fields like engineering and design, but its influence is ever-widening in scope. Along with the increasing adoption of 3D printing come a host of potential challenges that the next generation of information professionals must grapple with. The University of Texas at Austin iSchool recently acquired new 3D printers, thanks to the gracious support of an iSchool alumna, and students in the Technology Learning Studio class were able to assemble and test out a few. Here are some of their thoughts on 3D printing and what it means for the future of the information profession.
Implications for Information Policy and Security
By Walker Riley
Information policy is a side of the iSchool that I think is going to explode in the next decade. As library science transitions into information science, the incumbent topics of intellectual property, freedom of information, privacy, and accessibility are going to expand exponentially. Concepts like intellectual property have, for instance, gotten far more complicated as technology has spread and developed. This is easy to see with art forms that have been around for several millennia like music and writing. 3D printing however, is an introduction of an entirely new form of creation, and as such, ours is the generation that is going to be responsible for deciding what IP law is going to look like with regard to physical objects that can be reproduced without a manufacturer’s permission. How long before we start seeing DRM limited printers that will refuse to print someone else’s 3D model? Is that something we want to encourage or something that we want to keep from happening? I think for these questions alone, 3D printing should have a substantial presence here at the iSchool.
3D printing is also a technology that is slowly making its way into libraries and archives around the world, and as such, forward thinking students will very likely want to get familiar with how they work. It is only a matter of time before archival digitization includes 3D scanning sculptures and artifacts so that scholars from anywhere on earth (or Mars if you believe in the SpaceX plan to cultivate an interplanetary civilization) can print replicas at home. Libraries, like the new Austin Public Library’s central library, are already starting to offer makerspaces to help generate tech interest in children and adults alike.
I could go on and on about the potential academic applicability of 3D printing, but frankly I think it is also important to point out just how freakin’ cool these printers are. I am currently designing a 3D model of a fully functional padlock to demonstrate how locks work to my Technology Learning Studio class. Jennifer Allen and I are about to start a project where we build and program a 3D printer from scratch, and several of the parts we are using are going to be 3D printed. Jennifer just printed a hard case for the Kryoflux. The awesome stuff that these machines are capable of printing is infinite, and that infinity is getting bigger every month as new printing materials come out. Right now we have a flexible material that could be used to print phone cases, and there is already conductive filament on the market for printing electronics. 3D printing is not just a fad, it is the next upgrade to our standard of living.
Professional Responsibilities: Access & Open Source Libraries
By Jennifer Allen
Often archiving, even digital archiving, is something that most people would not associate with 3D printing. 3D scanning, more likely, but 3D printing not as much. Like Walker, I do see our generation as the generation that is going to set the future of IP law for these softwares, but it will also be our generation’s job to create a scalable program for access to the software (both open source and proprietary) that is required to interact with a printer and the file formats that they use.
With the permeance of 3D printers into libraries, schools, and more public spaces the ability to monetize them will grow exponentially. The responsibility to provide access to open source software libraries for interacting with 3D printers and patterns will then fall on libraries and digital archives. This idea leads back to the larger concept that our generation needs to push for open source libraries for this software and patterns so that 3D printers can be used as a learning opportunity and they are not funneled to whichever schools have the most money, which will always be a deterrent for some schools.
Aside from the IP law concerns that go along with 3D printers, they are super amazing for many reasons. Apart from the fact that we can print limbs and toys, we can also print with wood, conductive material, flexible material, and even chocolate. I was able to print a small box for the Kryoflux using a pattern found on Thingiverse and it only took around 4 hours; something like that is so amazing to me. There will always be concerns with people “being able to print their own 3D printer” but that experience in itself is a large learning opportunity and a chance to teach someone about working with Arduino and the wiring needed to make it run correctly. That is the exact learning opportunity that Walker and I are choosing to embark on in the near future. In my opinion though, the coolest part of 3D printers is watching it print an object (it’s so mesmerizing).
Check out the 3D printer in action!