Heard Off the Street: Library's 3-D printer spits out all kinds of fun and learning

Erin Wincek has been blown away by 3-D printing.

No, the librarian isn't buying shares of volatile, high-flying 3-D printing companies on margin. But that doesn't mean the director of the Saxonburg Area Library isn't 3-D bubbly.

Since learning about it three years ago, Ms. Wincek, 33, has been devouring everything she can about the technology, which sends digital images of objects to a printer that relentlessly spits out small amounts of plastic, metals or other materials until the physical version of the digital image has been produced.

"It's mesmerizing," she said. "It's hard not to sit there and watch the whole creation take place."

While books, magazines and CDs are on the shopping lists of most librarians, Ms. Wincek had a bigger vision: Put a 3-D printer in the library that could be used as a teaching tool to open the eyes of young children to how things will be made in the future.

"I kept hounding the board," Ms. Wincek said, sending 3-D printing material to the library's directors and urging them to look at it.

On Wednesday, Ms. Wincek got her wish.

A couple that owns a local business that makes custom weaving looms donated a $1,600 3-D printer to the small library. Since then, Ms. Wincek has hardly left the joint.

Even before the 11-pound printer arrived, she explained how it works to two young brothers camped out at the library while their mother was getting her hair cut across West Main Street.

"They stayed for an hour. They couldn't stop researching it," she said.

On Friday, Ms. Wincek sat Rachel Steiner down in front of the 3-D printer as it methodically made a small owl out of bright orange plastic. The 12-year-old old was just as mesmerized as Ms. Wincek, transfixed as the owl slowly took shape before her wide eyes.

"We're going to grab up these fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders and show them their future," said Ms. Wincek, who thinks the printer could influence some of their career choices.

Library board president Matt Phillips said Ms. Wincek's enthusiasm is why the library has the printer.

"It's prompted us as a board to share in her passion," said Mr. Phillips, who owns an insurance agency in Saxonburg. "We're not a big library, and we have something that many large libraries and institutions do not have."

Ms. Wincek says she knows of no other library in the region that has a 3-D printer, although several local schools have them. She is still learning how to use the device. On Friday morning, she called in Larry Lesniak, one of the donors, to load a spool of the orange plastic onto the printer so she could make the owl.

"She has a tremendous vision for the library and what it means to the community and how we can enhance the learning experience of everyone in the community," said Mr. Lesniak, who with his wife, Michelle, owns Authentic Craftworks.

Mr. Lesniak said they became familiar with the technology at TechShop, a workshop and fabrication studio at Bakery Square in Larimer. Their 19-year-old son created a business this summer selling acrylic game pieces he makes using equipment at TechShop. Mr. Lesniak sees the library's 3-D printer getting children interested in technology and technology-based careers. That should help local businesses such as Oberg Industries and Penn United Technologies that are trying to develop the next generation of skilled, manufacturing workers, he said.

Ms. Wincek plans to conduct workshops at the library on 3-D printing, teaching children how to make something from digital designs that can be downloaded at no cost from the Internet. Eventually, she'll show them how to use software to design their own products and use the printer to make them.

Because the printer is light and portable, Mr. Phillips envisions taking it to schools, retirement homes and other places. He expects the couple of hundred children who attend the library's summer reading program each week will be drawn to the printer.

"A lot of kids are going to get exposure to this technology this summer," he said.

The 3-D printer arrived as the library changes its name to South Butler Community Library to better reflect its target audience.

While that rebranding initiative proceeds, the library's directors have another big issue in front of them: establishing policies for using the printer. Ms. Wincek said many "maker spaces" with 3-D printers weigh the object and charge the maker a per-gram price based on the cost of the material. Time could also be a consideration. While it took a little more than an hour to print the owl, some objects can be made in 10 minutes while others take two hours.

"It's complex, to say the least," Mr. Phillips said. "We're really going to have to get on top of what we need to do."

Ms. Wincek, who has been director of the library since October 2010, wants to use the printer to make a reusable coffee cup sleeve she found at thingiverse.com, a Web-based repository of free digital designs.

But given the interest she expects the device will generate, she may be too busy answering questions to stand in line. That's OK by her.

"It's the right kind of hectic," she said. "I love the excitement that surrounds new ideas and am willing to devote extra time to make it happen."

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Len Boselovic: lboselovic@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1941. First Published June 16, 2013 4:00 AM


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