One Expert Is Never Enough: Surviving When Your 3d-Printing Expert Leaves

One Expert Is Never Enough: Surviving When Your 3d-Printing Expert Leaves

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SUNY Oswego’s Penfield Library has had a Makerbot Replicator 2 since 2013. There’s a pretty great article about it over in Computers in Libraries, and everything. We offer 3d printing as a service: People send us files they’d like printed off, and we print them in the requested color, charging 20 cents per gram. Although students get priority, anyone can ask us to print something. We’ve printed everything from class assignments to model skulls to birthday gifts.

The 3d printer was paid for with a small grant, and since the beginning, our library had only one 3d-printing expert: our Learning Technologies Librarian (LTL). There were a few other interested librarians who stepped in from time to time to handle routine prints, but most of the work fell on our one expert. This was particularly true of maintenance and troubleshooting, since we didn’t get any kind of support plan when we purchased our printer. Just about all of the maintenance fell on the shoulders of the LTL.

Eventually the 3d-printing workload got to the point where it was interfering with the LTL’s other responsibilities, so we brought in a student worker to help out a couple hours a week. Life was good! Then, soon after, the LTL was offered a really fabulous job at another university, and announced that she would be leaving us.

Before leaving, she did everything in her power to prepare us to carrying on 3d printing without her. She worked intensively with the student worker, teaching her the ins and outs of the printer. The LTL also trained every librarian she could get her hands on, had us all practice printing independently, showed us where to find documentation, and answered every question we could think of.

Then our LTL left us. It was smooth sailing for a couple weeks; our Head of Reference stepped up as point person, and between him and the student worker, things seemed to be going well. Then we hit winter, the student worker left campus for break, and we got pounded with a rush of 3d-printing requests that people wanted done in time for the holidays.

The Head of Reference was still on point with the 3d printing, but now I was playing backup. My 3d-printing experience was pretty minimal, but because my office is in easy earshot of the printer, I was tasked with listening to make sure nothing went wrong. You can tell a *lot* about how a print is going based on how it sounds! When one job finished, I would start up the next. Piece of cake.

This worked out well until the day the Makerbot stopped printing. Makerbot support recently started charging for their services, and we weren’t yet prepared to pay someone else to troubleshoot–so we were on our own. The two of us spent most of a day poring over the machine, taking it apart and putting it back together, trying to figure out what was wrong (and what order the pieces went back together in).

I spent a lot of time bonding with Google, looking up problems that other people had and how they solved them. There’s a lot of helpful material out there in the form of tutorials and teardowns. Unfortunately, when we were nearly done disassembling the thing, there was a part (I want to say it was the drive block) that every tutorial showed just sliding out effortlessly. Ours was stuck, but no one was talking about conditions under which it might stick. Things were complicated still more by there being a piece in our Makerbot that didn’t match our user manual. Some material online had it; some didn’t. We weren’t sure what effect that was having on our ability to take the machine apart.

We did eventually get through this. It turned out that plastic from the extruder had somehow leaked into places it was not supposed to go, and we had to clean it out. We also had to unclog the extruder, but after the other battle, that felt like a piece of cake. The extra piece on our drive block? It was an extruder upgrade that the LTL must have installed herself after the printer was purchased.

That’s the worst problem we’ve faced so far, but lately we’ve also been plagued with a series of failed prints where the Makerbot just stops midway through for no apparent reason. I don’t doubt that we’ll figure this out eventually (or break down and pay Makerbot support). In the mean time, though, it’s a time-suck that’s hard to afford when we’re short-staffed.

My point with this is not just to recount an epic battle trying to get our Makerbot to play nicely, or to complain about the added work. I actually enjoy dealing with the 3d printer, as a break from my normal tasks. What I am trying to say is this: When a librarian leaves, you already know things are going to be hectic for a while because you’re short-staffed. Being at the bottom of the 3d printer’s learning curve at the same time, while trying to maintain this popular service, is an added burden. If I could do it all over, I would look for ways in which we could have had a second expert from day one. Really mastering the 3d printer while the LTL was still around always seemed like it didn’t deserve priority over all my other work tasks. It was a time commitment, and one I didn’t think I needed to make. In hindsight, it would have been better to put in that time while we were fully staffed, instead of waiting until the LTL left.

Has anyone else out there kept their 3d-printing program alive after the expert left? Do you have any advice you’d be willing to share?

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