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Objective reality: 3-D printing gains traction at MIT

MIT Libraries are offering an IAP session (already full) and a brown-bag lunch talk on 3-D printing — technology MIT helped develop years ago that is now entering the mainstream.
The MakerBot Replicator 2, a 3-D printer that will be used for the IAP session.
The MakerBot Replicator 2, a 3-D printer that will be used for the IAP session.

If you’ve checked out the Independent Activities Period (IAP) 2014 catalog, you may have noticed the class "3-D printing for fun and science? A conversation about digital fabrication, the library, and you." The 35 available seats filled fast, confirming that 3-D printing is one hot item.

And not just at MIT. When Sears sells a computer numerical control (CNC) machine and Staples and Best Buy stock 3-D printers, it’s safe to say that this technology — also known as digital fabrication — has arrived.

Matthew Bernhardt, who will lead the IAP session, was the fabrication lab coordinator at Ohio State University's Knowlton School of Architecture before coming to work at the MIT Libraries. He’s observed a “dizzying array of 3-D applications coming out of industries and academic lines of inquiry” that he never thought would use this kind of equipment.

Bernhardt has also witnessed many advances in 3-D technology over the last five years. Some architecture groups, for example, have started to print 3-D models in concrete.

3-D printing: A quick primer

If you’ve heard of 3-D printing but are hazy on the details, here’s a quick primer, courtesy of Bernhardt.

There are three types of digital fabrication processes: additive, subtractive, and deformative. All involve the creation of three-dimensional objects based on digital files sent to a computer-controlled device.

In an additive process, a heated material is sent though a nozzle that moves with precision to fill a single layer of the model. The build plate drops slightly, and the next layer is added. Layer after layer is deposited in this way to build the final object.

There are a few variations on the additive process. Fused deposition machines (FDM), like the MakerBot Replicator 2 desktop printer that will be used for the IAP session, are the least expensive and most popular among hobbyists. They typically liquefy filaments of polylactic acid, a renewable bioplastic, to build objects. Another additive technology, originally developed at MIT in the 1990s, is called 3-D printing: By combining a liquid binder and a powdery substrate, it enables dyeing of the object, resulting in full-color output. There are also additive processes — stereolithography and selective laser sintering — that use lasers to create one-off prototypes.

Bernhardt notes that additive processes are becoming more flexible. Some machines now offer multimaterial processes: conductive and nonconductive materials can be combined in one object. And fabrication of metal objects is becoming more common.

In a subtractive process, an object is formed by selectively removing material. CNC machines do this, typically removing material from blocks of metal or plastic. While these machines are often used to make industrial parts, hobbyist versions are available.

A deformative process is neither additive nor subtractive; it merely changes a material’s shape. The machines that do this typically heat and mold a plastic sheet or use heat to bend pipes and tubes.
To learn more about digital fabrication, see the infographic What is 3-D printing? or attend the brown-bag lunch talk, "An Overview of '3-D Printing' Technology," on Jan. 16.

Fabrication options at MIT

Micah Altman, director of research and head/scientist, Program on Information Science for the MIT Libraries, has been exploring the connection between libraries and maker spaces, since “personal fabrication can be seen as offering the ability to materialize information.”

As a first step in this direction, the Program on Information Science sponsored the development of the IAP course and a related seminar and purchased the MakerBot Replicator 2 printer, a 3-D scanner, and materials that will be used in the IAP session.

Altman has also been actively assessing personal fabrication options at MIT.

The most extensive fabrication facility at MIT is the Center for Bits and Atoms (CBA) in the Media Lab. Directed by Professor Neil Gershenfeld, a pioneer in personal fabrication, this facility provides technologies for making things on scales ranging from atoms to buildings. Funded by the CBA’s research programs, the facility is only accessible to participating researchers.

MIT community members who aren’t affiliated with the CBA have other options. A variety of machine shops offer equipment to various segments of the MIT community. For a handy summary, see Machine Shop Access around MIT. And in Boston, a fabrication lab is available to the public at the South End Technology Center @ Tent City, a collaborative venture between the Tent City Corporation and MIT.

To view some 3-D equipment in action, check out the School of Architecture’s recently expanded fabrication lab. It’s behind glass as you walk along the Infinite Corridor on the fourth floor of Building 7.

What’s next?

The IAP course and access to the MakerBot 3-D printer are being sponsored by the Libraries Program on Information Science as part of a pilot to gauge the interest of the MIT community and to understand its needs. The Libraries are investigating the possibility of creating experimental digital maker spaces as they think about future programming.

Whether or not MIT hosts maker spaces, 3-D technology for materializing information is increasingly accessible. The MIT Libraries are ready and eager to consult with community members on all forms of information management, widely defined, and to collaborate with researchers in using current fabrication facilities or in developing new ones.

To connect with the Libraries as they move forward with this initiative, visit the Libraries Program on Information Science web site or send e-mail to the program at

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