Ash’s Declassified Survival Guide to Running a 3D Printing Makerspace

Formnext Germany

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So, you just got a new job running a makerspace, or you’re interested in starting one. Great! But, now what?

A makerspace is essentially a place where you make things, hence the name. This making is usually performed with some form of woodworking tools, CNC machines, and 3D printers.

Printers I run at Form Design Studio. Image courtesy of Form Design Studio.

With the rise in popularity of additive manufacturing (AM), makerspaces have been popping up more frequently around the world. They are used in the consumer goods sector for rapid prototyping products and designs, as well as in the education space in universities, schools, and libraries, and in the medical field in hospitals and labs, for producing medical models and other tools.

Since I’ve run makerspaces for the top fashion brands in the world, universities, business incubators, and the like, I thought I could provide readers with best practices, how-tos, and the advantages and disadvantages to running a makerspace.

Makerspace Safety

There are a lot of factors to consider when building out or starting a makerspace, and safety is one of the most important. While this might seem intuitive to some, there are a lot of variables key to running a makerspace safely.

The first consideration is having procedures and protocols in place when dealing with hazardous materials. For example, if you use stereolithography (SLA) 3D printers, like those from Formlabs, you might be dealing with flammable materials, like highly concentrated IPA or other solvents. These need to be kept in non-flammable cabinets, closets, etc. There also needs to be proper protocols in place to dispose of hazardous materials. Materials like exhausted isopropyl alcohol (IPA), cured resins, etc., cannot be poured down the drain (and it’s illegal in many locations). You might need to research how to dispose of these materials in your local area or contact a local waste company or building facility manager. Some companies like Waste Management, perform specialty pick-ups for certain materials, but this depends on your area.

More printers from Form Design Studio. Notice that they are secured in cabinets for safety and improved print quality. Image courtesy of Form Design Studio.

Ventilation is also extremely important. When dealing with chemicals, excessive fumes, etc., it’s essential to have a ventilation system in place, especially for the health of your employees and others who share that space. Safety equipment is also extremely important. When dealing with printers like SLA printers, it is imperative to wear gloves when handling resin materials. In the past, I’ve witnessed people handle resins with their bare hands. I dropped everything I was doing to help them. So, on the big list of 3D printing safety No-Nos, do not touch resin with your bare hands.

@themetal3dprinter This is what the inside of a 3D printer looks like! Featuring @Formlabs Form 2 #3dprinting #3dprintinglife #learnontiktok #3d #3dprinter #engineering #stemtok #stemlife #maintenance #robotics #softwareengineer #3dprintfarm #printfarm #sla #formlabs #3dprintingbusiness #science #ghost #maryonacross #metalhead #grunge #mullet #mileycyrus #howto #diy #scienceexperiments #repair #diyproject #metaverse #3dprintmeme #progress #inspiration #glowup #nevergiveup #quoteoftheday #progresschallenge #code #bgm #yourbeautynevereverscaredme #money #september #august #fypシ #purr ♬ original sound – Ash

Also, maintaining other protective gear and tools like safety goggles is important. This is crucial, for example, when removing supports from 3D printed objects. I can’t even begin to capture just how painful it is to get an extremely sharp SLA support gouged into your eye, which I can attest to from personal experience. It might seem silly, but you must wear safety glasses and other protective gear when dealing with certain materials and processes.

What 3D Printers Should You Consider?

Now, onto the fun part: what type of 3D printer should you consider?

Different varieties of 3D printers are readily available on the market, ranging from low- and high-cost fused filament fabrication (FFF) machines to SLA, selective laser sintering (SLS), etc. FFF printers have an easier learning curve in comparison to other printers. These machines are ideal for makerspaces, especially those involved with students. Depending on the type/brand of FFF printer, they are also relatively inexpensive compared to other machines on the market. FFF printers are great for their ability to print parts quickly, including large components that don’t require a lot of detail. This allows for the production of many items quickly, which is excellent for having a makerspace in the education sector, where students can print quickly, especially if a lot of classes are passing through. There is also a lot of software (with an easier learning curve) with integrated slicers for FFF 3D printers, like Fusion 360.

The downside to FFF systems is that they usually can’t produce much detail compared to SLA. They are also impacted and subjected to print failures due to environmental factors, such as humidity, dust, and extreme heat, which can cause warping and other issues. Enclosures are a great way to store and protect FFF printers, as well as print jobs, from environmental factors.

MIX Lab has a fleet of MakerBot 3D printers, among other equipment. Image courtesy of MIX Lab.

SLA printers are a great next step after learning FDM 3D printers, since they are a little more challenging to learn. They can produce high-resolution prints, which are fantastic for prototyping consumer goods and other designs that require a lot of detail. On the downside, SLA printers tend to be much slower than FFF and have smaller build volumes. However, there are an increasing number of cheap digital light processing (DLP) systems with similarly high resolution but much faster build speeds. It can also take a while to learn how to support SLA prints properly in slicing software, which is not as intuitive as FDM 3D printers.

Similarly, SLS printers can produce high-quality prototypes and potentially end-use products. They also have the ability to make Nylon parts, which are skin-safe. However, these printers are costly and require more training than the other two 3D printing technologies mentioned.

Regardless of which printer you choose, it is best practice to keep these printers away from each other. SLA printers are susceptible to dust and other similar environmental factors.

Pros and Cons of Running a Makerspace

There are a lot of advantages to building or running a makerspace. For example, the ability to create a community of people interested in 3D printing, creating new jobs and businesses, getting a new generation of students into the technology, potentially reducing prototyping costs, etc.

Having a community is very helpful when initiating your 3D printing journey because there is always someone to help. When I started 3D printing, I had an amazing community at the MIX 3D printing lab, and I had all the assistance I needed when I began using the technology. If one person didn’t know how to do something, someone could always provide information or a specific skill set, and vice versa.  If I didn’t have a community around me when I first started 3D printing, I honestly don’t know if I would be doing 3D printing today. I still have the same friends I went to 3D printing school with to this day.

MIX Lab’s 3D printing setup. Image courtesy of MIX Lab.

But with all the good, there are downsides to running a makerspace. Unfortunately, when one printer stops working, this could be catastrophic for 3D printer output. For example, if you’re running a print farm for a consumer goods company or in an education setting, a printer going down could halt or drastically affect print production. Sometimes these things are inevitable. However, if someone doesn’t know how to use a specific printer, things usually happen that lead to a printer having issues or even breaking entirely. FFF printers tend to be the easiest to fix, but if it’s beyond in-house repair, or if you’re utilizing a different 3D printing technology, someone might have to come out and fix it. You might even have to send it back to the original manufacturer to have it repaired. Unfortunately, this all takes time and can hinder print productivity.

But despite these issues, running or starting a makerspace can be super rewarding. You not only get to share the gift of 3D printing with others, but you are also creating the future of additive manufacturing.

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