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Tech Savvy: A space for makers - BRAINerd Innovator Lab offers 3D printing, circuit tech and more

Americorps VISTA Alyssa Lennander explains the how the LulzBot TAZ 6 operates. The 3D printer is one of two owned by the Brainerd Public Library and is available for print requests from the public. Chelsey Perkins / Brainerd Dispatch Video

Think about a time when you've used an item and thought about the ways it could have a better design.

Maybe it's missing a helpful hook, or would benefit from size adjustments, or maybe it'd be better to start from scratch and design a version with the features and colors you see in your mind's eye.

Bringing those visions to life is easier than ever with the proliferation of desktop 3D printers, which allow consumers access to machines capable of creating a nearly endless array of useful or fun gadgets. That includes within the small corner of the Brainerd Public Library dubbed the BRAINerd Innovator Lab, a makerspace offering 3D printing and numerous other hands-on, creative activities.

The space is not yet fully accessible by the public, said Alyssa Lennander, an Americorps VISTA member leading the charge on the Brainerd makerspace. But the library takes 3D printing requests and offers instructive classes for children to learn with circuits, robots and handheld 3D pens. Plans call for general public use of the space funded through an Otto Bremer Trust grant once the library is ready.

"I'm hoping people will be able to come in and use the computers here to work on what they want to 3D print," Lennander said. "I'm hoping to eventually have open workshops so families can come in and work on things together."

Makerspaces have grown in popularity at libraries and schools along with an increased emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, or STEM. The lab at the Brainerd library includes items such as the programmable cutting machine Cricut, Sphero robotic balls, Makey Makey invention kits and LEGO WeDo sets, using LEGO bricks as learning tools for engineering and science.

Hogging the spotlight in the space, however, are the two 3D printers. Lennander has been teaching herself how to use the machines, the software accompanying them and the programs available to develop and download designs. Several online resources offer databases of creations from the minds of users all over the world, while free sites such as Tinkercad allow people to use computer-aided design software to develop their own 3D prints.

Lennander recently used a design from Thingiverse to modify the larger 3D printer—the LulzBot TAZ 6—with a spool to feed the plastic filament into the extruder.

"I was worried it (the filament) would break, so I looked on Thingiverse and found a file for this specific printer," Lennander said.

Although the library carries only plastic filament for its printers, the LulzBot is capable of printing with wood, bronze, copper, stainless steel and several other materials.

Among some useful items a 3D printer can produce: salt and pepper shakers, adjustable wrenches, grocery bag carriers, tweezers, straws, outlet covers, cookie cutters, GoPro mounts, hair traps, headphone stands, tent spikes ... the list goes on. Lennander said one of the most exciting things in her opinion is the potential for people to think about projects in new ways.

"I think it's great that 3D printers get people thinking creatively and innovating," she said. "They can build a prototype of inventions and all that stuff."

The potential of 3D printers doesn't stop at gadgets and gizmos. The same concept of additive manufacturing—or the process of building something layer by layer—has been applied to food production, home building and even replacement body parts.

A company in China managed to print 10 homes in one day at a cost of $5,000 a house in 2014, the BBC reported, and green design website Inhabitant reported Austin, Texas, is home to the first permitted 3D home in the United States as of this year. The 600- to 800-square-foot model runs $4,000 and is being promoted as a potential solution to global homelessness.

Scientists are working toward creating functioning organs using 3D printing by applying cells to scaffolding materials, Science reports. This means if a patient lost an ear, for example, a 3D printer has the potential to create a replacement ear, using the patient's own cells to grow it. While challenges lie ahead, the use of the technology has produced better results than those previously seen with other methods.

For Lennander, it's about inspiring the next generation of innovative thinkers to apply their own ideas in ways that can produce something new and exciting. A recent graduate of a library science master's degree program, the Brainerd native intends to continue her work within the makerspace concept.

"I think it represents where our future is heading, especially in regards to technology."

Requesting a 3D print

The Brainerd Public Library accepts printing requests at a cost of 25 cents per gram of final weight of an item.

To submit a print request, email the file to reference//tinyurl.com/bpl3Drequest. Depending on demand, it may take one to two weeks. When the print has been completed, the library will send an email for pickup and will hold on to the print for seven days before it becomes library property. Pay for the 3D print at the circulation desk by cash or check.

For ideas or free templates, visit Thingiverse.com, Pinshape.com, MyMiniFactory.com and Cubify.com.

Basic knowledge of computer-assisted drawing is necessary to design and create one's own product. Any CAD software may be used to create a design as long as it can be saved in .stl or .obj file format. Free CAD software is available to use online at Tinkercad.com or clara.io. Software is available to download via Blender, FreeCAD and OpenSCAD. Tutorials are readily available on the web to help.

Prints should take six hours or less to print. For printing estimates, download the FlashPrint software for the FlashForge Finder 3D printer, or download Cura for the Lulzbot printer. Alternatively, come into the library and use the computer in the BRAINerd Innovator Lab with the software already installed. The software will also give an estimate on weight to help figure out the cost for your print.

The 3D printers may only be used for lawful purposes only, the library stated. The public will not be permitted to use the 3D printers to create objects prohibited by local, state and federal law; unsafe, harmful, dangerous or posing an immediate threat to the well-being of others; obscene or otherwise inappropriate for the library environment; or in violation of another's intellectual property rights. The library stated it is not responsible for the functionality or quality of content produced on the 3D printers.

Upcoming classes

To register for classes, call 218-829-5574 or visit https://tinyurl.com/bplclasses.

• SciGirls Series: Deep Sea Diver—3 p.m. Monday, June 4. Think like an ocean engineer and design a model deep sea diver. Ages 8-12, limit 15.

• SciGirls Series: Dough Creatures—3 p.m. June 11. Light up the room with electrifying play dough creations. Ages 8-12, limit 15.

• Brushbots!—3:30 p.m. June 12. Build a simple robot out of brushes and batteries. Ages 8-12, limit 10.

• 3D Pen Creations—3:30 p.m. June 26. Draw up in the air using 3D pens. Use templates or imagination. For newbies ages 8-12, limit 10.

Chelsey Perkins

Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her bachelor's degree in professional journalism at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Perkins interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins, and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before becoming the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as the county government beat reporter at the Dispatch and a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.

(218) 855-5874