Printing Building Blocks For The Future: New Grants Bring 3D Technology To Border Libraries

MARFA, Texas — Funding to buy computers and software for schools in the rural borderlands is often scarce. Yet several public libraries on the border in Arizona and Texas have recently received 3D printers that are transforming those libraries. The 3D printers come from a blend of new federal and state grants specifically targeting border libraries.

Now, from Yuma, Arizona to the borderlands of west Texas, southwestern libraries are suddenly a magnet for 3D printers and those who now love them.

“I think it’s a way to create stuff your own way so instead of going out to buy something, you can make it your own,” said 10-year-old Francis Benton at the public library in tiny Marfa, Texas.

Marfa is one of most visited small towns in the country. Contemporary art, ranching and Mexican culture intersect here. But Marfa is also in a hardscrabble border county. Now, new grants from the Arizona and Texas library systems are transforming at least five bordertown libraries like Marfa’s and Yuma’s.

“Just offering books and movies and even internet access isn’t enough anymore,” said Marfa librarian Mandy Roane.

“Libraries really have to expand in what they they’re doing. And a lot of libraries are going towards being maker spaces, where you can make things, create things with your hands and 3d printers are a really good place where a lot of libraries start,” Roane said.

With 3D printing technology, design plans are uploaded from a computer to the printer, the same process used when printing paper documents. The printer then layers plastics and chemicals with an instrument that resemebles a hot glue gun. The 3D printer is instructed to create objects in three dimensions such as car parts or cutlery, or in the case of the children at the Marfa Public Library, plastic replica cats.

“Francis is going to make two cats so we can each have one of them because we both like cats,” said 10-year-old Victor Culbertson excitedly.

He wasn’t let down. Francis Benton shared the design details for the figurine cats the pair was crafting together.

”A circle for the head, a cylinder for the neck, and a circle for the body which turned out to be an oval. And then I’m going to make another one and give it to Victor,” Benton said.

The children made small figurines and toys. Children at other 3D printer-equipped libraries have also made puzzles. The new grants bring an emerging technology to children to in part, inspire creativity, Introducing them to a technology that’s changing industry.

Nike has a new patent to print running shoes, GE is printing aircraft parts, a 3D printed car is in production near Phoenix and state university systems in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas are also heavily invested.

“It may end up reinventing some of our manufacturing sector, ” explained Joe Hahn, a professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Hahn also said this technology is relatively nascent in terms of mass commercial applicability.

“I don’t how you can manufacture things that have complex internal workings and moving parts. I don’t know that they have the ability to do that just yet, but that is one of those things like self-driving cars that I look forward to seeing where we’re going to go with it,” he continued.

Cars that drive themselves may be a way off, but 3D is already used on a commercial scale to make something that sounds like the future’s already here: replacement human tissue.
The University of Texas at San Antonio has just received a 3D printer that can reproduce tissue and print human cells and print them in a dry environment so that the cells can be stored for long periods before they’re used.

Lisa Harouni is the CEO of Digital Forming, a UK software company. She says human implants like transplant organs are also being made commercially.

“Typically, an implant is more effective within the body if it’s more porous, because our body tissue will grow into it. There’s a lower chance of rejection. With 3D printing, we are seeing today that we can create much better implants. And in fact because we can create one offs we can create implants that are specific to individuals,” she told a TED Talk.

3D is also in space. A Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off from Kazakhstan March 18 ferrying new crew members and a 3D printer to the International Space Station. The crew will craft tools and parts with a 3D-printer. And NASA is experimenting with printed food for astronauts,something Francis Benton, back in the Marfa library, already knew about.

“They have little food cartridges, one is cheese, one’s red sauce, and it lays down the dough and then it outs down the tomato sauce and then it puts the cheese and the it automatically cooks, that’s how hot it is,” Benton explained.

“I thought it was like, wow! I couldn’t believe that a 3D printer could actually make it like that,” said eight-year-old Louise Culbertson after printing a figurine she designed.

The new grants are bringing a taste of cutting edge technology to children in a region where libraries typically run on extremely low budgets, places that otherwise couldn’t even contemplate buying a piece of equipment that is by all accounts, a building block for the promise of tomorrow’s industrial technology.

This story was reported by Lorne Matalon in collaboration with Fronteras: The Changing America Desk. Fronteras is a consortium of NPR member stations in the Southwest.

This story was reported by Lorne Matalon in collaboration with Fronteras: The Changing America Desk. Fronteras is a consortium of NPR member stations in the Southwest.

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