Yesterday, Chicago Public Library opened the doors to its maker lab for the masses, a place where the public can play with 3D printers, milling machines and more. Those previously barred from meeting with machinery, by cost or lack of know-how, will now get their chance––with CPL eager to make introductions.
“This is the most democratic change in manufacturing,” says Mark Andersen, chief of business, science and technology at the CPL.
Free access means the lab welcomes all in the pursuit of 3D printing and other tinkering, though what’s made will be constrained by staff supervision and the machinery’s limitations. “You can make things you need, small things at this point; but this is the way of the future,” says Andersen.
As to hardware: the lab purchased a milling machine, two vinyl cutters, two laser cutters, three 3D printers, and an Xbox Kinect scanner with help from a grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Accompanying open-source software on library computers means users become familiar with programs they can download at home, free. Workshops, open lab hours and demonstrations show beginners what the tech’s capable of, like creating mini museum exhibits, wooden cell phone docks and more.
“We’re trying to introduce them to tools that are actually going to be low-cost or no cost, and are going to be accessible for them wherever they go,” says Andrea Sáenz, first deputy commissioner for the library. “We think we’re going to turn on some people who didn’t see themselves as tech workers…and spark some interest.”
“[The lab] provides an entry point to people who would otherwise not have access to this equipment,” says Patrick Molloy, director of government and public affairs for CPL. “It fosters creation and exploration.”
The maker lab itself is an experiment, with six month’s time for observation and tweaking.“The library’s always been there to provide access to information and this is something that people may have interest in,” Molloy says.
“Giving people access to the current ideas of the day has always been at the core of a library’s mission,” Sáenz says. “[With the lab], we’re saying these are the current ideas of the day, this is what’s relevant, this is what matters.”
The lab aims to demystify maker technology and help people learn marketable manufacturing skills. Though equipment and other limitations may prevent designers from building a better mousetrap, the library’s prepared in case of breakthrough. Staff can help makers with everything from business plans to patents. Should someone invent a new and innovative product, “we’re ready for it,” says Sáenz.
“It’d be great if 5 years from now someone [said], ‘I invented this because the library showed me how to do this, or how it is possible,’” says Andersen.