Innovation Lab at Harold Washington Library -- How It Works

The Innovation library received a slew of press coverage when they announced the opening of the Innovation Lab - a space that gives the public free access to 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC milling machines. Yet once the space opened I had questions about the logistics:  how does it work? If you want to 3D print an object, do you just walk in and simply start using a Makerbot? How much does the filament cost? What machines are available? Who is supporting the users? So I paid a visit and have some quick answers - with the caveat that the Innovation Lab is an experiment and things are changing quickly, and this information is based on one visit in July.



The coolest thing about the lab is that 3D printing is almost free. At the Chicago Public Library, you only pay for the filament (the “plastic” with which the 3D objects are created).  Currently, for a 3 inch cube (pictured), this only costs $2. At a commercial 3D print shop in Chicago, prices can be about $50 per hour. Since printing takes hours, what only costs around $ 5 at the library, will cost you $100- $400 anywhere else.


The Innovation Lab has three MakerBot Replicator 2's (3D printers). Complexities do arise because, despite all the hype, Replicator 2's are not prime time. I know it’s a revolution, I know it’s the future, but as my work surrounds me with these machines and the engineers who support them - they are glitchy as can be. Printing can fail as often as it succeeds. Objects slide off the plate, the filament gets tangled, the machine gets clogged, the software malfunctions.

2013-08-24-innovationlabchicagolibrary2.jpg Thus the only criticism I have of the library is that the folks supporting these machines are librarians and their tech staff - as opposed to mechanical engineers who have spent years swearing at these machines. So if you go there and the machines are down - just know these machines are malfunctioning everywhere you go


The Innovation lab also supports laser cutters, and has CNC milling machines, which were not in use at the time of my visit.


The second best thing about the Innovation Lab is classes - the schedule is here - which is the missing piece of most initiatives - free classes for beginners. Sign up early, as the “Digital Toolbox” class is booked up through the month. At other times the space is open for the public to walk in and use without an appointment.


Don’t close the space after December 31. That’s my plea to both the library and the public. The time needed to ramp up on these machines is significant, and the librarians are doing a great job of supporting these machines and these initiatives so early in the project.  It needs time. The public is just learning about this space - it needs time for the word to get around. People need to see what the machines can do - only then will they formulate the ideas that require these machines. The staff is friendly and welcoming, and for seasoned designers who have experience with 3D printing, the space offers the most affordable prototyping spot in the city.