Maker Lab Credit: Jillian Sandler

DIY projects are popping out around Chicago thanks to the Harold Washington Library Center’s Maker Lab, which features 3-D printing technology.

The lab opened to the public on July 8, aided by a nearly $250,000 grant issued by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Right now it’s slated to remain open through December 31, but plans could change depending on how it fares, according to Mark Andersen, chief of the Business, Science, and Technology Division at the Chicago Public Library. Andersen explains that the library is “trying to tap into the maker movement.”

The 3-D printing at the lab is all done digitally. Patrons create designs—like a coaster or bookmark—with a software program called SketchUp. The design is then transmitted via a flash drive or SD card to the 3-D printer, which is flanked on its backside by a reel of plastic. The extruder drops melted plastic layer by layer to form the object. Patience is required here—librarian Sasha Neri says it takes about an hour to print a single cube with two-inch faces.

The lab offers other machines to experiment with, too, such as digitized word-working and vinyl-cutting machines. Only patrons over the age of 14 can access the Maker Lab’s higher-end technology, but if you want to bring the kids, there are some old-fashioned arts and crafts.

Librarians do teach classes throughout the week for those who have only ever known ink on paper. Still, Andersen stresses that the process is a learning experience for the librarians, as well—most have no prior exposure to the software or machines.

The Maker Lab isn’t all about fun and games. Andersen says 3-D printing has real-life medical applications that allow researchers to mold stem cells into body parts—like ears or tracheas—for ailing patients. Maybe we’re not quite at the stage of printing organs, but plastic octopuses and Slinkys are a pretty good start.