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3D Printing During a Pandemic Summer: Lessons Learned

Image depicting the new 3D printer set-up / process during the Coronavirus pandemic

By TJ Ferrill


Hi everyone! T.J. Ferrill here. During the Spring of 2020, as lockdowns closed our gathering spaces and shortages of protective equipment threatened public safety, many on campus asked what could be done to help. One of the responses we undertook at the Marriott Library was to 3D print components for face shields and PAPR hoods. Along with campus partners in the College of Engineering, the Lassonde Institute, the Center for Medical Innovation, and the Eccles Health Sciences Library, we were able to participate in a campus-wide effort to keep frontline hospital workers better protected. Win!

While that story stands on its own, in this post I will share progress in Creativity & Innovation Services since the Summer of 2020. Specifically, the pandemic forced us to re-think the way 3D printing services operate. Leaning into social distancing and online service delivery, we are now providing consultations via Zoom. 3D print jobs are submitted and paid online and start printing automatically!

Before diving in, let me back up to describe “the way things were” in the before-times: Our focus was on creating an inviting space, open doors, and engaging a hands-on learning community. We welcomed groups large and small, and packed people around printers and tables. In-person instruction and consultations were the norm. The 3D printing space was full of researchers, students, and makers. It didn’t matter that there were inefficiencies, because we were able to transmit knowledge and enable skill-building.

Of course, in the COVID-19 era, the status quo creates challenges for departments and individuals that rely on in-person interactions: Fewer people on campus. Reduced building hours. Card-access only to buildings. No more tour groups. No touching anything. No in-person consultations. How can we still maximize access to equipment and information with all of these restrictions?

The answer to this question also brings to mind some other ways the system wasn’t working very well: printing lots of the same thing over and over was difficult and time consuming. One bottleneck was the memory cards used to store 3D print jobs. It was frustrating to deal with tiny and delicate memory cards. Writing 3D print job files to memory cards was fine when the responsibility was shared among all of our printer users, but the method does not translate as well when the responsibility for running 30+ printers falls on one person!

A logical starting point was to adapt our system to become more automated. After surveying options, we decided to build a 3D print management system in-house, using a combination of open source software and building on systems already maintained by the Library. What we have ended up with is a solution that authenticates users, tracks job progress and keeps statistics, enables online payment, and prints objects automatically. Prints can be started (or stopped) remotely, and detailed statistics help us identify needs for future growth.

While the system is still in its infancy, we are now accepting print jobs submitted through the Marriott Library website (http://www.lib.utah.edu/services/3d-printing/). Files that pass safety checks will be automatically started on the next available 3D printer, leaving all of the file transactions up to the automated system. Some may find it interesting that this is not the first remotely-controllable automated robotic facility in the building. The ARC has been doing the same thing for years: when a request comes in, library robots rise to the occasion to bring resources to your fingertips.

Best wishes to all,

TJ

TJ Ferrill | Assistant Head of Creative Spaces
Creativity & Innovation Services / Creative Spaces
thomas.ferrill@utah.edu

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