3-D Printing: Idaho's Newest Dimension 

3-D printing begins to flourish in the Gem State

The Idaho Commission for Libraries, as part of its Make It at the Library project, hosted Idaho librarians and program specialists in November 2013, where they were trained on 3-D technology and gifted with new 3-D printers to be showcased in libraries throughout Idaho.

George Prentice

The Idaho Commission for Libraries, as part of its Make It at the Library project, hosted Idaho librarians and program specialists in November 2013, where they were trained on 3-D technology and gifted with new 3-D printers to be showcased in libraries throughout Idaho.

The generation gap was tangible. When David Ultis revealed his 21st century wonder to a public gathering at the century-old Nampa Public Library, adults stayed near the back of the room with arms folded as younger generations rushed to the front of the room in order to get their first glimpse of a 3-D printer.

"An adult is usually going to ask all about the business sense of a 3-D printer," said Ultis. "But a kid will ask, 'Can I print my own action figure from my own design?'"

If Idaho has a 3-D guru, it's Ultis--perhaps the most plainspoken and nicest nerd you'll ever meet.

"I find much more contentment in working with a sense of wonder versus industrial applications," he said, before picking up a familiar looking object.

"Yup, I made a Tardis on the 3-D printer," he said, referring to the time-traveling police box that any Doctor Who fan would instantly recognize. Ultis' 3-D printer had made an exquisitely detailed collector's item from what had been nothing more than a few pennies worth of tiny plastic tubing. "I also like to print owls--symbols of wisdom--and give them to libraries."

The 30-year-old Ultis, general manager of Boise's Reuseum--the go-to gadget paradise for engineers and home-inventors--regularly partners with Idaho libraries to evangelize on the wonders of 3-D technology.

In fact, Ultis said the Treasure Valley already has its own robust 3-D printing community.

"Absolutely; there are a lot of us building 3-D printers in Boise," said Ultis, who hosts something called Open Lab Idaho at the Reuseum, billed as a "community hackerspace and makerspace ... for hackers, computer geeks, engineers, circuit benders, crafters, tinkerers, programmers and artists."

"3-D printing was really obscure to me not too long ago," said Ultis. "But then I started learning about RepRap."

RepRap is replicating rapid prototype, the Model T of 3-D printers, built from most of its own components. Simply put, the RepRap concept is to build a 3-D printer using parts that have been printed from a 3-D printer.

"There's a man named Adrian Bowyer, a British university professor. He found that patents that had been used in commercial 3-D printing had expired. It was so obscure because it was an industrial application that we didn't see much in our daily lives. But Bowyer said, 'I'll make a printer which can print itself.' And he protected his notes in General Public License, meaning that a company can't own the technology any longer. And the public domain of the technology lets us share freely without violating any laws."

Ultis walked over to his laptop and clicked open a huge digital file.

"Take a look; all the plans are free," he said. "It flowered like a tree, starting out with one design, then three, then 40. Thousands and thousands and thousands of 3-D objects can be downloaded and printed in your own home."

Everything from shoes to speakers to pizza have been created from 3-D printers. This past season's Project Runway featured 3-D printed clothes; the New York Daily News reports that a 3-D printer recently created ravioli and cheeseburgers; researchers at the University of Cambridge have announced that they can use 3-D printing technology to create mature central nervous system cells.

"Think of that: advanced tissues. I'm really glad that they're testing in a conscientious, ethical way," said Ultis.

As Ultis was talking to Boise Weekly, two children--14-year-old Jessica and her 12-year-old brother William--were inching ever closer to the 3-D printer.

"We're kind of curious," said Jessica. "I'm in the 9th grade and I love science and math."

When Ultis asked the two if they would rather buy or build a 3-D printer, William didn't need more than a second to answer.

"Build one," he practically shouted. "Oh yeah, build one. Besides, kids don't have a lot of money."

Ultis said, almost to the person, kids are interested in learning how to build one of their own 3-D printers. And he is more than happy to oblige.

That's one of the reasons why, a few months later, Ultis stood before a packed room at the Idaho Commission for Libraries in downtown Boise. The commission had flown in teams of librarians from throughout Idaho to help export 3-D technology to more of the state's children.

"We have people here from the Ada Community Library; the Community Library Network from up in the Panhandle; the Snake River School Community Library just outside of Blackfoot; the Meridian District Library; and a very small, one-room Gooding Public Library," said Erica Compton, the commission's project coordinator.

The five library teams spent the better part of 2013 participating in the commission's Make It At the Library project, designed to create so-called "makerspaces" in Idaho libraries for tweens and teens.

"In February, PCS Edventures taught the library teams on basics of fissure engineering. The teams worked on that in their local libraries for a few months, and then we brought them back in the summer for a two-day training on robotics, and now here we are and it's all about 3-D printing," said Compton.

Compton beamed from the back of the room as Ultis led the librarians on a 3-D journey.

"Congratulations," Ultis told the group after their third day of training. "You're printing your very own designs."

The group burst into laughter and a round of applause.

"You're doing much better than you think," Ultis assured the librarians.

Compton told Boise Weekly that she couldn't have been happier, given that when the librarians returned home, they would be sharing 3-D technology with the project's target audience.

"Tweens and teens. The sweet-spot are those aged 11 to 15," she said.

The cost of the 2013 project was approximately $10,000 in federal funds for each of the five participating library systems.

"And that's everything; all the materials, all the travel and, yes, even their own printers," said Compton.

And that was the big surprise for the librarians; their own 3-D printer, which had been built by Ultis.

"I typically ask for about six weeks to fully assemble and calibrate a new 3-D printer," Ultis told BW. "But we did all five of these in five weeks."

Three librarians, all youth service specialists, from North Idaho's Community Library Network told BW that they'll be showcasing their 3-D printer at a number of their network's libraries, including Athol, Hayden, Harrison, Pinehurst, Rathdrum and Spirit Lake.

"We're even thinking of taking the 3-D printer into our region's school libraries," said Nick Madsen. "We'll show it to the teachers first, and then they'll be invited to bring in their students."

Madsen and his North Idaho colleagues said they only had "some passing knowledge" about 3-D technology, but "now here we are making our own designs and printing our own creations."

"As far as we know, this will be the first 3-D printer in our part of Idaho," said Madsen. "I promise you that there will interest across-the-board when we get this back home."

Compton said the Idaho Commission for Libraries has already been asked to share its Make It at the Library success at national and international forums.

"Just a few months ago a few of us were in this same room talking about the Maker Movement, via video, to a conference being held in Paris, France," said Compton. "And we were just invited to make a presentation before the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Baltimore."

Each of Idaho's library districts will need to consider new policies regarding the use of 3-D printers, not just how to operate them, but what should or shouldn't be printed.

"They'll need to ask, 'How do we use these?'" said Compton. "For instance, what if a patron comes in and wants to print a gun?"

Good question. The 3-D printing world was immersed in controversy in the spring of 2013, when public domain files surfaced detailing how to print a 3-D firearm. The U.S. House of Representatives had to weigh in on the matter, voting Dec. 4, 2013 to extend for another 10 years the Undetectable Firearms Act, banning weapons made of plastic.

"But the benefits of 3-D printing outweigh the controversy," said Ultis. "Think of the human prosthetics, think of the scientific advances; it's pretty exciting."

Even though he repurposes many of the parts from previous 3-D printers to build newer models, Ultis clearly has an attachment to his creations. When BW asked if he, by any chance, had a name for any of his 3-D printers, he paused and smiled.

"Well... yes, now that you mention it. I named two of them Nord and Fjorr. And this one," he said pointing to his latest 3-D creation. "This one is Creamsicle."

Cool. Very cool.

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