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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2014

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Planning and Implementing a 3D Printing Service in an Academic Library

Sara Russell Gonzalez

Denise Beaubien Bennett

Marston Science Library
University of Florida
Gainesville, Florida


Initiating a 3D printing service in an academic library goes beyond justification of its value and gaining the necessary library and administrative support. Additional aspects such as policies, environmental safety, training, publicizing, maintenance, and scope of service must be considered. This article provides a guide to developing a 3D print service including recommendations for building support, issues to consider before implementing a service, tips for developing staff proficiency, and links to guides and policies at academic libraries. We also present examples of use cases observed at the University of Florida 3D printing service that demonstrate the value of 3D printing in supporting the teaching and research mission of a university.


3D printing, closely tied with the Makerspace movement, involves fabrication of 3D models. Once considered too expensive for common use, rapid technological improvements have lowered the cost barrier and it is becoming increasingly important for students and researchers to have access to this equipment. Petrick and Simpson (2013) discuss how 3D printing changes the rules for manufacturing of custom or low-volume production, including a blurring of the path between design and production.

In early 2013, the University of Florida Libraries proposed creating a 3D printing and scanning service for undergraduates to be funded from the student technology fee (Gonzalez et al. 2013). The proposal envisioned printers and scanners in both the science and health science libraries and was funded in August 2013. From the first printer's arrival in December 2013 through April 2014, library staff tested and developed procedures for the equipment and payment system.

This paper will introduce the 3D printing service at the University of Florida Marston Science Library and describe research and instructional usage of our 3D printers and scanners. We will also provide best practices for introducing and maintaining such a service, and provide talking points for how 3D services fit within the mission of an academic library. A brief version was presented at the ACRL Sci-Tech Section poster session at the 2014 ALA Annual Conference (Gonzalez & Bennett 2014).


A broader term for 3D printing is "additive manufacturing," referring to the technology that most commonly involves the extrusion of thin layers of plastic. There are other types of 3D printer technologies but in general the print process is slow and involves only one model, rather than traditional manufacturing which focuses on producing many identical items. Griffey (2012) offers a basic description of 3D printing technology. For a lengthier but introductory treatment, consult Lipson and Kurman (2013). Stephens et al. (2013) describe the printing process in detail while reporting their research on emissions, which we will address in "Environmental Safety and Location" below.

The most common models of 3D printers use either polylactic acid (PLA) or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) as the filament material. These materials require different temperatures in the extrusion process, so most printers are limited in the type of filament that they can support.

A digital model can be designed using software, scanned using a 3D scanner, or downloaded at numerous online repositories. This model development allows for creativity, and many students already have experience designing these models.

Several academic libraries offer 3D printing and have shared their visions informally. Early adopters include the University of Nevada Reno (Colegrove 2012), the University of Michigan, and North Carolina State University (see guides in the appendix). Case studies from Alabama (Scalfani 2013), Dalhousie (Groenendyk 2013), and Southern Illinois Edwardsville (Pryor 2014) contribute tips and rationales for decisions made. This case study from the University of Florida contributes to the growing body of case studies that serve as aids to libraries that wish to initiate a service. See Kent State's glossary (3D Printing Glossary 2014) for basic 3D printing terms and definitions.

Planning the Proposal

A request for a 3D printing service is best accompanied by a full proposal. Britton's proposal for 3D printers in the Fayetteville Free Library "included goals and outcomes, SWOT analysis, budget, possible sources of funding, descriptions of responsible parties, and more" (Britton 2012). These elements may be critical to gaining support and for successfully continuing the service. Below are suggestions for issues to address and include in a proposal.

Why the University?

Applications for 3D printers are not limited to hobbyists or even engineers. 3D printing can be used in coursework in a wide variety of disciplines, including art, architecture, and related courses and in engineering design classes, especially mechanical, civil, and aerospace. Researchers in many disciplines, particularly in engineering and biomedical areas, benefit from creating 3D visualizations of their products and ideas. Replication of historical or fragile artifacts to create objects that can be handled and manipulated offers opportunities to enhance learning (Chant 2014). Researchers can develop custom-designed tools to support their unique equipment needs, bypassing the challenges and often significant costs of purchasing specialized items (Zhang et al. 2013). Scientists and students who are investigating difficult-to-visualize concepts can gain understanding and insight by holding and manually inspecting a 3D object made real. Graduates will use 3D printers in industry, in the arts, in educational settings, and for biomedical applications. Those who have learned to use 3D printers and to create and alter models will have an edge in the workplace.

Why the Library?

One of the first questions often asked is why the library should provide 3D printing as a service. The library provides an environment that traditionally supports creative thinking and collaboration. The library is open many hours, and is open to all academic disciplines, serving as a neutral spot on campus that encourages cross-disciplinary collaboration.

3D printers that are located in "members only" labs are not broadly usable, and "libraries have adopted the role of providing universal access to technology over the last couple of decades" (Griffey 2012). As our service has developed, students and faculty have told us about 3D printers in departments such as astronomy, theater, and architecture. Specialized printers restricted to specific groups have their role on campus but also underscore the value in supplying a universal and basic service by the libraries. This allows experimentation by all students, regardless of affiliation, and allows them to develop a level of experience that will serve them well when introduced to more specialized equipment.

And finally, a 3D printer can draw users into the library and then encourage them to explore other library services. Even early on, we witnessed the value of using the 3D printers as a platform to highlight reference services, deepen liaison relationships with faculty, and create connections with other 3D printer users across campus.

Identify Local Advocates

One of the earliest steps to developing a 3D print service is to identify internal and community advocates. These can include potential users, individuals, and groups who already use 3D printers and can provide support, administrators who can assist in navigating institutional regulations and funding sources, and faculty who are willing to incorporate the service into their classes.

Some groups that we have found particularly interested in the library's 3D printers include (also see "success stories" below):

Identify Funding Options

The price of 3D printers has plummeted dramatically in the last two years. A very good basic 3D printer costs $1-2,000 and kits and small printers are available for as low as $300. Investing in a minimalist service, even as a trial project, does not require an enormous funding commitment. The filament material is the primary ongoing cost. Supporting supplies, such as pliers, spatulas, and blue painter's tape are relatively inexpensive.

To identify funding options beyond the library budget, look to student fees and student groups as well as the usual donor possibilities. Consider potential partnerships on campus, such as the computing services, and College of Engineering, Architecture, or Fine Arts. These other units may also be exploring developing a 3D print lab and looking to share staff time and resources.

At the University of Florida, librarians submitted a competitive proposal (Gonzalez et al. 2013) for use of an internal student technology fee fund and were awarded funding to purchase printers, 3D scanners, workstations and monitors, relevant software, and an initial supply of filament.

The budget plan needs to consider ongoing maintenance, replacement costs, and sustenance of supplies. Continuation funds can be either supported by library internal funds or through printing charges. We chose the print charge method to continue our service but our true costs are highly dependent upon the reliability of the printers and fluctuating cost of supplies. Based upon the amount of maintenance we have experienced with our printers, we strongly advise bundling a multi-year service plan with the purchase of each printer.

Prepare Yourself

Once the decision to start a 3D printing service is made, staff should begin informal training through the online documentation, discussion groups, and tutorials freely available. Topics to explore include a basic understanding of 3D printing technology, common terms, solutions to frequent problems, and resources for either downloading or developing 3D models.

Check to see if your institution's computing/technology service provides workshops covering popular 3D modeling software or subscribes to an online training database, such as, that has self-paced tutorials. In our library, staff and faculty have become familiar with a variety of software so that, as a staff, we are conversant in the programs most commonly used by students.

For each common 3D printer, look for discussion boards or online groups that are specifically aimed at users of that particular printer. Each printer will have its own common issues and we have found that these boards provide a wealth of knowledge and solutions. We have also found YouTube videos to be incredibly useful when performing a repair or investigating different types of printers.

Hosting a 3D print service in a library is quite distinct from lab printers or community hackerspaces and therefore we started a discussion list, Makerspaces in Libraries, to create a forum to discuss policies, offer advice on new tools and software, and talk about issues unique to libraries. To join the discussion list, e-mail In the body of the e-mail, add "subscribe librarymakerspace-L firstname lastname." To post, once subscribed, send e-mail to

Address Staff Concerns

As with any new service offered at a library, some staff will be highly enthusiastic from the start, some will resist, and some will start out hesitant but will gain in confidence and interest over time. You may be surprised to learn which staff turn out to be the early enthusiasts and learners of this unusual service, so don't feel locked into assigning the task to your first "most likely" team member. We found that, through giving staff equal opportunity to use the printer, the list of staff experts naturally evolved.

Once you receive a 3D printer, keep it in a staff-only area for a while so staff have an opportunity to become comfortable with the idea and with the printing activity. Encourage each staff member to print out a personal object; this is the best way to gain buy-in from the staff.

Environmental Safety and Location

Carefully choose the location of the printer considering visibility, ventilation, access, and climate control. The amount of climate control will depend upon the printer, material, and size but we have discovered that placing printers in an appropriate locale is critical to successful printing. The location must not be drafty or too cool, and the printer must be secure from easy bumps that can throw off the alignment. Another large decision is placement of the printer in a spot that is easily viewed by library patrons and yet both secure and accessible by those setting up the print jobs. Fortunately, many printers do not need to be networked since the files may transfer via a portable card or drive. Print jobs can be accepted at service point(s) away from the printer itself. A staff member who accepts a job does not necessarily have to start the job. These loosely-coupled functions ease the space planning decisions.

The health and safety impact of nanoparticles released during 3D printing can raise concern with staff and administration. The allergy/asthma/migraine sufferers among us who are irritated by laser printers and markers are not bothered at all by the PLA. A printer that uses PLA filament does not necessarily require special ventilation, but ABS and other materials must be ventilated properly and all printers and locations should be evaluated by the institution's health and environmental safety office. Stephens et al. (2013) measured ultrafine particle concentrations from two of the most common types of filament (PLA and ABS). Emission rates were much higher for ABS filament than for PLA, but both are similar to those emitted during common cooking functions as measured by Buonanno et al. (2009). The researchers acknowledge that their measurement of emitted particles was not based on the specific chemical composition, so further research is required. They recommend adequate ventilation and filtering of indoor printing spaces. Ventilation requirements for one or two printers may differ significantly from those required for a fleet of printers.

Levels of Service

A 3D printing service doesn't necessarily have to include or lead to a full-scale "makerspace." The simplest level of service can be limited to just printing: patrons bring in printable files. Creating and maintaining a guide that lists software tools for patrons to find existing files or to develop their own models is as simple as copying or mashing other libraries' guides (see list in the appendix).

An early and critical decision to make is whether only staff will start jobs or whether trained patrons may use the printer directly. The University of Alabama (Scalfani 2013) and the University of Michigan (University of Michigan 3D Lab 2012) provide self service to authorized users, while staff at the University of Florida (3D Printing at the UF Libraries 2014), Dalhousie (Groenendyk 2013; Comeau 2014), and Southern Illinois Edwardsville (Pryor 2014) handle the printers. Starting a print job is not glamorous or difficult. With a self-service operation, patrons may initiate a job without waiting for staff. Staff-starting jobs provide a layer of quality control checking before the job is initiated and might result in fewer failed first attempts due to rookie mistakes caused by inexperienced judgment with rafts, supports, resolution, infill, and completeness of model. They also allow for efficient prioritization of jobs where appropriate. A hybrid plan that meets the needs of both rookie/occasional and authorized users should be considered.

The next layer of service is to offer some guidance to patrons on making or improving their own models. If this level of expertise is desired but not available on the library staff, engineering students could be harnessed to help. Options for compensating students could include hiring them as student assistants, offering (where possible) course credit for independent study, and the always valuable "the experience will look good on your vita" followed by "we will be happy to serve as a reference for you." If the "on call" model does not appeal to engineering students, they may be interested in intensive evening or weekend "hackathon" events in which they provide assistance. The University of Alabama provides a workshop to train potential modelers (Scalfani 2013). Librarians at Dalhousie University believe that instruction and demonstrations must be offered if patrons are to use the technology effectively (Groenendyk 2013).

Adding a 3D scanner (Reuscher 2014) is the next and cleanest tool to augment a developing service. If a scanner is not provided, patrons can still be guided toward apps that allow them to scan or take multiple photos of objects that can be uploaded into software that turns the images into a 3D model. Scanners require a level of mastery before effective use, and it may not be realistic to expect anyone on the library staff to acquire expertise. Users, possibly only those authorized, may be permitted to use the scanner directly.

3D printing can be a gateway to providing a full makerspace, complete with many tools. But it is not necessary to provide more than a 3D printer to provide a successful service. The term "makerspace" connotes to some a decidedly nonacademic function, so choose to use the term with care.


Start Gradually

3D printers tend to attract a great deal of attention when located in public areas and so, unless you plan to open up the service immediately to patrons, place them initially in a staff area for training and testing. Depending on the printer, software, and staff experience, libraries might encounter a significant learning curve to becoming comfortable with 3D printing. We found the most straightforward way to gain expertise with our equipment was to encourage every staff member to download or create a 3D model and print it out to keep. Even reluctant staff gained experience and increased enthusiasm when given the opportunity to print a model of their own.

After staff printing, consider bringing in beta testers, composed of the local advocates identified during the preliminary stages, to print jobs at no cost and with no guarantee. This strategy provided an excellent opportunity to fine tune the workflow, discover new quirks with the printers, and develop a showcase of objects highlighting the potential of the service.

We created a detailed but intimidating list of instructions for handling print jobs and the charging mechanism. We later reworked the instructions with screen capture illustrations for easier following. We also created a poster that indicates the shortcuts (including gems such as "return flash drive to patron") and is mounted by the service desk workstation.

It is wise to save the launching of the service and full-blown publicity until core staff are confident in their ability to run the printer and handle requests. Many failures will be printed during this testing and learning phase and they are invaluable "learning objects" to share with patrons and during staff training. We have a shelf full of cautionary models that highlight what can go wrong when supports and rafts aren't properly used or when a large object cools too rapidly.

Develop Your Policy

As with any new library service, develop your use policy by reading those of other libraries and including the portions that are most suitable for your situation. The policy can be stated in the form of a user agreement which must be signed before each job is submitted, or once per patron depending on the configuration of your printing service.

Elements to include in your policy or user agreement are:

The library service policy should be re-evaluated periodically to ensure that it is meeting equally the needs of the library and users.

The Reference Interview

When patrons submit a job to be printed, it is helpful to conduct a modified reference interview to review their file and their needs and expectations. The reference interview checklist may include questions and topics such as:

Vetting a patron's 3D model before printing can create an opportunity for assessing workmanship that is not provided with other services such as photocopying. The skill set for communicating why a model is not likely to print successfully or that a model is just plain bad because the scaling is incorrect may prove delicate. Frequently, the process of accepting the print job develops into a lengthy consultation, and empowering staff to refer a patron to a more qualified member of the 3D printing team should be an integral component of staff training.

Success stories

One of the most convincing arguments to show the importance of 3D printing to academic research and teaching is by highlighting successful use cases. Below, we present ones that were particularly noteworthy in the UF Libraries.


Human Protein Interactions: One of our beta testers was a professor in computational microbiology who researches how human proteins interface through the use of computer simulations. He theorized that by holding printed protein molecules and visually inspecting their surfaces and rotating them manually, he and his lab group would gain insight into how they fit and interact together. His digital molecules were generated using crystallography and converted using PyMOL into a 3D surface model. We used MeshLab to make a printable .stl file that was then printed at high resolution. The microbiologist's group visited the library to observe the printing and was excited at how successfully the models printed.

Gopher Tortoises: A biology undergraduate planned to study how young gopher tortoises are targeted by predators in the wild and needed to make tortoise models to plant as decoys in his study area. He had explored online 3D printing services and high-end printers on campus but the print charges were outside of his modest budget. The library print charge was less than 10% of his other quotes and the plastic was sturdy enough to be painted, scented, and placed outside. He subsequently cast a mold from a 3D printed model and made a full creep of tortoises in a softer material that would show bite marks.

Custom Lab Equipment: A research lab in Pharmaceutics needed specialized lab equipment but was unable to source pieces that met their specifications and alternatives were expensive. Once they learned about the library's 3D printer, they used Solidworks to create the pieces and print them, at the cost of just <$5 per piece. They were able to quickly modify a component and reprint it, which would have been impossible without the printer. Astronomy is using a 3D printer to prototype and print telescope instruments and, as echoed by Zhang et al. (2013), find that they are saving 90% of the cost of commercial pieces.


Online Paleontology: In Fall 2015, the UF Geology Department plans to teach their first online upper-level paleontology course. An important aspect of a paleontology lab is handling and examining fossils, which is a challenge for distance students. We are assisting the course instructors by scanning and printing example fossils that will be mailed to each student. The 3D prints are ideal for distance students since they are easily duplicated, lightweight and inexpensive to mail, and are reproducible at high resolution with the details and striations that are key to understanding fossilized organisms.

Mathematical Models: We have printed several models for mathematicians that illustrate mathematical concepts that can be difficult to visualize with just 2D drawings. Examples of such models include fractals, spherical projections of grids, and hyperbolic surfaces (Segerman 2012).

Engineering Product Design: Many engineering students have significant design experience creating 3D models using various CAD programs but lack the time or opportunity to turn these models into a physical representation. This option is especially important for students designing and developing prototypes of parts for coursework, such as UF's Integrated Product and Process Design program. Ideally, all engineering students would have their own low-cost 3D printer for prototyping but this isn't often feasible. 3D printers in the library can serve to introduce students to the technology and we have informed curious students about potential printers they can purchase and build themselves. We have seen great interest among some international students who are eager to bring back 3D printing to their home countries.


Although our 3D printing service is still in a relatively early stage, we are constantly evaluating our service to ensure the printing and materials are sufficient for our users' needs, the workflow is streamlined, and our cost model is accurate. Our payment system is connected with a database that tracks model size and resolution, user affiliation, and whether the model was for a class. Through October 2014, our usage shows 70% of all print jobs are submitted by undergraduates, and 54% are submitted by engineers.

For example, we originally thought changing out the filament was difficult and time-consuming, but we've become efficient at the swap and our patrons ask about color options. In addition, we've observed that the Makerbot slicing software generally overestimates the time and underestimates the material actually used. Patrons show great interest in high resolution printing, but we do not see its value for many jobs and the function greatly increases the time to print. We may in the future adjust our pricing algorithm to place greater weight on time and less on material, especially as material costs drop significantly.

We are already realizing that some of our researchers need 3D printers that allow support material to be more easily removed, especially for open models such as chemical molecules. Based upon this feedback, we are exploring alternatives such as dual extruder and stereolithographic printers and are gaining a better understanding of what models we can correctly print and when to refer a patron to a higher-end 3D printing service elsewhere on campus or online.

Due to challenges in implementing the payment system, we did not open the service to the entire community until the last two weeks of classes for the spring semester. We experienced a rush to print during these weeks due to graduation paraphernalia and class projects, however the relative quiet of the summer semester has been ideal for our staff to continue learning before the Fall rush. Almost every print job provides learning opportunities for staff and patrons and, to our surprise, many patrons seem to have lower expectations than staff for quality of the initial attempt.


Our future plans include purchasing a printer for the Education Library, purchasing a printer that uses dissolvable filament, and exploring the ventilation needs for our growing fleet of printers. Added services include launching a series of workshops that introduce students to printing basics and to successful model development, and increasing our marketing to instructors to encourage incorporating 3D printing into coursework.

Academic libraries can serve successfully as a gateway by supporting introductory levels of 3D printing on campus with a manageable impact on staff and space. We encourage communication and additional case studies from other libraries with successful 3D printing services to establish best practices for current and future initiatives.


We would like to thank the UF Libraries faculty and staff who participated in the funding proposal and played a large role in its implementation: Greg Allen, Joe Aufmuth, Neelam Bharti, Amy Buhler, Tara Cataldo, Christine Cogar, Don David, Rachael Elrod, Michael Howell, Margeaux Johnson, Vernon Kisling, Michelle Leonard, Ann Lindell, Valrie Minson, Hannah Norton, Sarah Prentice, Cliff Richmond, Melody Royster, Josh Spurgin, Evan Wack, and Christine Yip. This service is funded by a 2013 University of Florida Technology Fee Grant.


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Examples of 3D guides and policies

Brigham Young University
Colorado State University {}
Kent State University
Miami University {}
North Carolina State University
Oswego State University of New York
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
University of Alabama
University of Florida
University of Maryland
University of Michigan
University of Nevada Reno {}
University of Tennessee-Chattanooga {}
University of Tennessee-Knoxville
University of Utah

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