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Printing in Three Dimensions

How I learned to make my own cookie cutter at the library

Fans of Star Trek are familiar with replicators, providing exotic drinks, gourmet meals, and practical and important objects for all sorts of purposes in the future. Give voice commands to the computer, and the objects appear.
    In real life, you can take a first step toward this future by having your computer create solid objects.
    Both Anne Arundel and Calvert County library systems now offer 3D printing services. Calvert has a 3D printer in the Prince Frederick branch; Anne Arundel at the Annapolis, Glen Burnie and Odenton branches.
    “The library is always interested in connecting citizens with emerging technologies,” said Stephanie Petruso, virtual services manager for Anne Arundel County Public Library. “3D printing fits into our Technology Strategic Plan to make technology available for all through library services.”
    In the first few months, Chesapeake techies have printed objects ranging from the whimsical to the practical: Pikachu critters from Pokémon, rabbits and foxes, Harry Potter symbols, a replacement lens cap for a camera and a device for mounting a camera on a drone.
    Usage is increasing as more people become aware of the service and learn how to create objects to print. Both library systems anticipate increased usage over time.
    “Depending on usage, people’s interest and funding, we’ll probably add more units,” says Calvert County Library’s Robyn Truslow.
    The process is simple — at least in theory. Use a software program to design your three-dimensional object and transfer the output file to a flash drive. Drop off the flash drive at your closest library with a 3-D printer. Return in a few days, pay 25 cents a gram to cover material costs and walk out with your creation.
    I knew sbout 3D printing and had seen a printer. Still, my starting point in terms of taking an idea to a solid object was zero.
    Here are the steps I followed to get from zero to — well, you’ll have to wait to find out what.

Getting Started

    Both Anne Arundel and Calvert libraries’ websites on 3D printing provide the basic information to get started, the how-to of using the libraries’ printers, tips for success and links to educational resources.
    To design my objects, I went with the libraries’ suggestion of the free, web-based program Tinkercad. Unwilling to wait for a class, and overlooking the fact that both library systems work with education provider Lynda.com to provide online training, I set out to learn on my own, turning to YouTube video. I would play the video until the presenter completed a step, then stop the video and recreate the operation in my own version of Tinkercad. I quickly found an 18-minute lesson on how to make a cookie cutter. How hard could that be?
    There is more to Tinkercad than meets the eye, but two hours later, I was comfortable using the software, and I had the file for my first project. Taking a couple of hours to learn a 3-D computer-assisted design program is reasonable.

Making It My Own

    While I was delighted to duplicate the work on the video, I needed to use my newly acquired skills to make something more unique. Tinkercad has a set of letters in its shapes library; I decided to make a stamp to emboss my granddaughter’s name on the cookies. That second object came much quicker.
    I now had a flash drive with one file for the cookie cutter and another for the name stamp. I followed library web site directions to a program that estimated the printing time and weight, and therefore the cost of the finished item. My set would cost about $7 and take a couple of hours to print.
    Flash drive in hand, I met with librarian Brian Oberle at the Glen Burnie library. Time allowing, librarians will take a quick look at your files before you leave to make sure they are printable. Otherwise, if there is a problem you will get a call the next day.
    The cookie cutter was fine, but my name stamp was unprintable. I had made the most common rookie mistake: objects floating in air. Objects must start at the bottom and build up. Letters I thought touching in my stamp were actually separated by a quarter-inch and could not be printed. Back home I made a quick fix and soon had the file back for printing.
    A day later I picked up my creations.
    “It’s very rewarding,” Oberle told me as I thanked him for his support. “It provides an opportunity to introduce people to a technology that’s only going to grow in versatility and use.”

Does It Work?

    My cookie cutter-name stamp kit was not perfect, but it was usable.
    My granddaughter was coming for dinner the next evening, so my wife used it to create cookies with her name stamped in them. Based on my granddaughter’s smile when she saw the cookies, I declare my first venture into 3D printing a success.


A Primer on 3D Printing

    To understand 3D printing, start with a more familiar technology, ink jet printing.
    Ink jet printing works like a graffiti artist tagging the side of a building. The artist moves around the wall, spraying paint where desired, creating a two dimensional image. Ink jet printers work the same way, except, in general, the paper moves up, while a print head moves side to side, spraying quick-drying ink where the software tells it to. You can put ink anywhere on the page you desire. Using software programs like Word, PowerPoint or Photoshop, you are limited only by your imagination as to what they create.
    To get to 3D printing, imagine two extensions to ink jet printing. First, instead of a print head moving only left to right and top to bottom, add a third dimension: Let the print head move up. Second, instead of quick-drying ink, imagine a print head that squirts quick-hardening melted plastic. This plastic can be deposited on itself, building objects with height and depth — solid three-dimensional objects.
    Add the software enabling you to design these objects, and you have a powerful technology that creates objects much faster and cheaper than traditional manufacturing processes.
    For a good two-minute video on 3D printing, search YouTube for What Is 3D Printing and How Does It Work?