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Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Cloud-based printing comes to Carolina’s makerspaces

BeAM — Carolina’s makerspace network — has rolled out 3DPrinterOS, a remote printer operating system that will allow makers to print from anywhere on campus.

Purple plastic inside a 3D printer
UNC senior Oreyane Tate works with a 3D printing machine in the makerspace area of Kenan Science Library on August 27, 2019, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The College of Arts & Sciences caught up with Kristen O’Connor, technical supervisor of BeAM’s Carmichael Residence Hall location, to learn more about the makerspaces’ new 3D printing system and other updates, including a fee-by-weight system that is estimated to be implemented by spring 2023.

Tell us a bit about the 3DPrinterOS update.

3DPrinterOS is a cloud-based 3D printer operating system that will allow us to manage machines, files and users through the web. All 3D prints will now be sent through this platform, and this system will allow us to collect vital information about our 3D printer fleet.

We still require that new users complete our Sakai training module before accessing 3D printers for the first time, but anyone who has already completed this training can login to 3DPrinterOS and start printing!

How does 3DPrinterOS differ from the ways makers have been able to use the 3D printers at BeAM in the past?

With 3DPrinterOS, makers can print remotely through the web and no longer have to be physically present in our makerspaces to start a 3D print. Previously, all prints were started using a USB drive inserted directly into the printers, and now we will no longer support USB printing. Makers will, however, still need to come pick up prints in-person at the correct location.

Currently there is no charge for 3D printing using the new system, but makers should be aware that another change coming down the pipeline is our fee system, which will likely be implemented by spring 2023.

We will make several official announcements before the fee system is live, and we will provide more details about fees and what they’ll cover. Once we implement the fee system, we will charge by weight. It will be calculated as a small fee per gram of filament used. This system is expected to increase patron convenience and accountability and cut down on filament waste.

Additionally, through a generous contribution from Eastman Chemical, all user accounts will be preloaded with a free allotment of filament and fees will be charged only after free filament is used. We are working on a system that will allow fees to be waived for those facing financial hardships or other extenuating circumstances. It is our goal to keep BeAM open an accessible to all.

What behind-the-scenes work went into making these upgrades possible?

Thanks to the generous funding from CFE Lenovo, we were able to begin the initial setup of 3DPrinterOS starting early in summer 2022. Levi Tox and Kishan Babuji, two of our student specialists, helped get all the printers set up on new shelves and wired with ethernet cables.

We then worked closely with OASIS to get the fleet networked properly. Once everything was online, our summer staff tested the system and sent the first prints. By the end of summer, we had half of the printer fleet in Carmichael Residence Hall accessible through 3DPrinterOS and started letting patrons send prints as well!

It’s been fun watching more experienced staff and makers use this system because it is so different from how 3D printing has traditionally been done at BeAM. In many ways, it’s much easier to use, so I’m excited to see more people using it during the fall semester.

What do makers need to do in order to access this new 3D printing capability?

Everyone should make sure they’ve completed BeAM 101 (required to access any of our makerspaces) and our Sakai 3D printer training. We’ve updated the Sakai module with instructions on how access and use 3DPrinterOS, so even makers who have already completed the training should return to this page for resource links.

We prefer that makers physically come into a BeAM location to send their first print through 3DPrinterOS, so staff members can assist with the process. Afterwards, makers are welcome to print remotely!