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An Interview with Steven Pryor, SIU-Edwardsville

Following the success of our first round of HARO queries related to 3D printing in education, in business, and in the consumer space, we decided it was time to delve a little deeper into the education space, where 3D printing is having a tremendous impact. More specifically, we have chosen to focus on its integration into higher education and STEM education. This is the second segment in a series of interviews with people from around the country working with 3D printers and printing. Steven Pryor currents serves as the director of digitial initiatives and technologies at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE). The interview was conducted via email, and the transcript is here below.

1) What is your academic background and how long have you been working at SIUE?
I have a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from SIU Carbondale, a Master of Science in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington; I have been working in Library and Information Services at SIUE for three years, with over 13 years of experience in library IT previous to that.

2) What was it that prompted you to bring 3D printing to campus? Was there buy-in from the administration from the beginning?
Shortly after I came to SIUE, I was asked by my Dean (Dr. Regina McBride, Dean of Library and Information Services) to compile a list of possible expenditures before the close of the fiscal year, as is typical at that time of year. I had heard about the new hobbyist-style 3D printing machines that were coming on the scene due to patent expirations and a DIY open-source ethic that rapidly improved upon freely-available plans and easily-obtained materials. I pitched the “crazy idea” that we could now offer this kind of tech for just a couple of thousand dollars and provide it, like other library services and resources to the entire campus.

The Engineering department, of course, had a 3D printer for some years before us (as well as CNC lathes and other advanced machining and fabrication tools), but of course it was very expensive and use was limited to certain classes or projects within their own department. Dean McBride was very excited by the idea, and supported the purchase of the equipment and development of the service.

3) I understand that you have had some type of 3D printing going on since 2012, can you talk about the initial reactions, as well as, how it has evolved as more technology has become available?
Initial reaction was a mix of enthusiasm and “what does this have to do with the library?” I gave several presentations explaining the perspective that the library is a place for creating, using, and transforming information…information that may not always be words: of course sometimes it’s a picture, or drawing, or music, but it might also be a design for a product, a building, a sculpture, or some other physical manifestation of an idea.

We have long provided the technology to print ideas on paper, so if we have the capability to allow our users to print ideas as a thing, why or how could we not offer that as well? Students and faculty in departments that previously did not have access to a 3D printer were very interested and enthusiastic to hear about the service and view the machine in operation at our library open house and other presentations. Since 2012, our service has used the same hardware, but improvements in printer firmware and processing software have made huge improvements in print speed and quality.

4) What types of units are you using on campus? How many printers do you have currently installed? What type of filament or materials are you printing with?
We currently run two Makerbot Replicators (first generation). We originally bought a large stash of ABS plastic and are still working through some of that; PLA is more common now and that is what we have been buying lately, but in 2012 there was not nearly as much overall supply or availability of color options in PLA.

We have also been experimenting some with Makerbot’s dissolvable filament—we have a faculty member working in a team on imaging and modeling a particular molecule, we printed the model of the molecule and due to its nature (it is just a twisty ribbon of a protein strand, as I understand it) the support material required is so voluminous it is very difficult to extract the actual model from it, so we’re looking at making the support dissolvable instead of having to physically remove it.

5) What do you think have been the biggest challenges of operating this type of technology on a college campus?
3D printing, at least with the most affordable and most common currently available technology (“fused deposition modeling,” where the object is built in layers), takes time. A 4-inch cube, for example, might take 3-5 hours. One of the challenges is in deciding how to set up the service so that people have access to it, but also that it’s reasonable and fair and any user can get good results.

There’s a bit of an art to orienting items for best print results, calibrating the printer and software settings, and so on. And few students at all will be willing or able to “walk up” to the machine to make a print and wait with it for 6 hours while it completes (not to mention other students who want to use it in that time, they will not want to wait in line for that to finish only to have their own 3 or 4 hour wait). So the obvious solution is to, as we and now others have done, make it a “mediated service” where interested users send their files to staff to process, get a time and cost estimate, and are notified when they can pick up their print. The challenge is then having the staff available, and with the expertise required to set up the print jobs and perform any required printer maintenance or calibration, etc.

6) Where are your 3D printing facilities centered on campus? Can any student, faculty, or staff member use them?
The printers and staff are located in SIUE’s Lovejoy Library, and their use is open to any student, faculty, or staff.

7) Have you been able to use the availability of this type of technology to form cross-campus partnerships or partnerships with local businesses or community members in Edwardsville?
We have worked with many faculty on campus, printing models of their research product so they can visualize and inspect something “physically” rather than spinning it around on a screen (the aforementioned molecule, for example), models for classroom demonstration, and objects for lab use and experimental purposes. I am also working with a local historical society to perform a 3D scan of an archaeological artifact, and frequently consult, present, or provide information and advice to any who ask.

8) What are some of the long-term goals of SIUE as it relates to both 3D printing and education in general?
I believe the long-term goal is always to prepare our students for the world they will encounter after graduation, providing them knowledge and skills to navigate and succeed personally and professionally. The service supports goals we have for providing experiential education opportunities and in blending technology advances into the classroom experience.

The specific classroom knowledge they need obviously varies by discipline, but I think 3D printing is something that cuts across all disciplines, and is showing up in every area from medicine to business to digital humanities and of course engineering. My goal is to make sure that, even if most students never actually use the service, that as many as possible are at least aware that it exists and what the technology can do, so that they are prepared, not surprised, when they graduate and find the technology in use in the real world.

9) What impact do you think it has had on the education of your students? Does it give your students a competitive edge over those from other schools?
I talk to students in every discipline and engage their imagination about what this could do for their field, and every one of them is able to come up with some great ideas. As I said before, even if many or most never create a 3D print while they’re here, I hope to give them the advantage of knowing about it and imagining how it might help their future company, employer, department, educational pursuits, and so on. I do think that, with all the hype (maybe too much) regarding this technology and “the new industrial revolution” and so on, that being prepared with knowledge of it and a bank of ideas is a competitive advantage.

10) What advice would you have for another institution looking to start a 3D printing program on a college campus? What type of infrastructure needs to be in place first?
The physical infrastructure needs for a typical desktop 3D printer are pretty minimal: a desk, a computer, a regular power outlet, and a well-ventilated space (maybe an air filter). This kind of machine will require a tech-savvy tinkerer-type, as they’re not yet as plug and play and easy to use as a laser printer, so having that kind of staff available with the time available to process print jobs and run the machine is necessary.

For us, a busy period is maybe one print request per day, so it doesn’t take a LOT of time (and an 8-hour print is typically only maybe 5 minutes of work to set up). Of course, if you don’t want the physical machine maintenance and have the money for it, you could get a more commercial-level printer from a company like Stratasys or 3DSystems. They’re more expensive but take away some of the tinkering and calibration tasks (I’m not sure if they require special power, ventilation, etc.).

Evaluate what your institution can handle, how you want the service to work, and choose the kind of printer and service model that works for you. Finally, don’t be afraid to step back if it doesn’t work out. The technology available for “consumer” use is still in its infancy, and lots of things can go wrong or may not meet expectations. We’re all just experimenting.