September 12, 2012

Printing owls in Nevada


The DeLaMare Science & Engineering Library at the University of Nevada-Reno has one-upped Espresso Book Machine owners everywhere: they’ve gone 3-D, dammit. They are the first academic library in the United States to offer 3-D printing, where the machine builds a plastic model on the spot for you, based on a digital file, for all of us who aren’t Nikola Tesla and can’t completely visualize a turbine in our heads. The technology has been in existence for a while, but Tod Colegrove, director of the library, says:

3D printers are typically purchased by a faculty member with grant funds in support of a particular research project, and installed in isolated departmental locations. Printers remain largely inaccessible to students and faculty outside of a select few. We’ve changed that.

Students at UNR are already printing robot parts, sculptures, chemical models, and more. Other 3-D printing businesses out there are pushing the possibilities even further, as an article on the subject two years ago in the New York Times mentioned:

A California start-up is even working on building houses. Its printer, which would fit on a tractor-trailer, would use patterns delivered by computer, squirt out layers of special concrete and build entire walls that could be connected to form the basis of a house.

The trajectory of 3-D printing appears to be echoing the trajectory of printing history as a whole. First, it’s very expensive to do, only available to an elite with enough capital to invest in the equipment and expertise … but before you know it, someone at the computer work station next to you in the Student Center is leaning hard on the stapler, assembling 150 copies of a prog-rock-and-philosophy ‘zine. Or, you know, a blue owl.

It’s also interesting, and particularly cheering, that this project is happening in the library, as university libraries struggle between the Scylla of slashed budgets and the Charybdis of everyone thinking they no longer need to go to the library now that they have a iPad. DeLaMare Library, by the way, also has gold-plated drinking fountains — with their new 3-D printer, I’d say the legacy of eccentric swankiness, or swanky eccentricity, lives on. I predict many happy hours ahead for work-study students at the circ desk, watching the blue owls come out.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.