EBR Library's new 3-D printers can create just about anything you can dream up

Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- The East Baton Rouge Parish Library's 3D printer can make all kinds of objects, from skulls to art.
Advocate staff photo by TRAVIS SPRADLING -- The East Baton Rouge Parish Library's 3D printer can make all kinds of objects, from skulls to art.

Layer by plastic filament layer, the 3-D printers at the East Baton Rouge Parish Library on Goodwood Boulevard churn out real, solid objects. The process inspires a lot of excited statements.

“It’s like watching a miracle happen,” said Sonya T. Gordon, the East Baton Rouge Parsh Library’s spokeswoman.

Or it’s like science fiction.

“You can just sketch anything you want into existence,” said Victoria Harrington-Burns, an anthropology graduate student at LSU. “It’s technology and science and fantasy in the best possible combination.”

Jake Fontenot uses the printer to create sculptures based on his artwork.

“It’s cool just to be able to think of something and have it there,” he said.

A 3-D printer, technically known as MakerBot Replicator2X Experimental 3D Printer, creates objects by “additive manufacturing,” said Michael C. Brandyberry, the makerspace technology engineer for the library. Instead of chiseling away plastic to create an object, it adds thin layers of material until that object exists.

“When you think of a sculpture, they knock away every part of the statue that’s not the statue,” Brandyberry said. “With this, they only add the bits that are the statue.”

The three 3-D printers available for the public use plastic filament similar to thick, colored fishing line that is heated by the machine to a semi-liquid state. A motherboard directs the printer nozzles to create the object depicted in the plans. The nozzles lay a line of plastic, then move a millimeter up to lay the next line.

Simple prints can take 45 minutes, while intricate designs demand up to 18 hours.

“A misunderstanding is they think it’s like a copy machine,” Brandyberry said. “They think you hit a button and it comes out. No way.”

Recently Harrington-Burns printed a visual aid for an anthropology class she was teaching. Models of the 2.5 million-year-old skull she wanted to use in her lecture cost at least $132.

“For what I wanted to show for my students, they are too expensive,” Harrington-Burns said.

She found a schematic of the skull online and had it printed at the library for $15 in materials.

The library charges $1 to submit a design and 10 cents per gram of material used to create the finished product. Designs are limited to the size of a large shoebox.

Brandyberry must approve each design. Weapons and “salacious materials” aren’t allowed.

A 40-person waiting list means that most prints won’t be ready for 10 to 14 days after submission.

While 3-D printers were created in 1984, according to Engineering.com, an online business publication, kits for non-industrial printers hit the market in 2009. The technology is still fairly young, said Brandyberry, who compares 3-D printing with the home computer industry in the 1970s when enthusiasts built their own machines.

They’re far from perfect, he said.

“These things, if it’s too humid, it doesn’t like it,” Brandyberry said. “If it’s not humid enough, it doesn’t like it.”

As the technology becomes more accessible, Brandyberry thinks it could change America’s culture of sending broken items to the landfill. Because the machines can replace lost or broken parts, Americans may start printing replacements instead of buying new goods.

“They’ll start to think, ‘Oh, I don’t have to throw that out or buy another one,’” he said.

Fontenot first used a 3-D printer during biology classes at LSU.

But the device led him to think of all the ways he could create new pieces of art.

This summer he submitted his first 3-D-printed art project — a geometric sculpture of a hand. It came out well, he said, but he wants to try something more complex next time.

“The only limitation is your imagination and the technology,” he said.