Not many people know how to use a 3D carving machine, and it’s not surprising since most don’t have access to one. Realistically, who just has one of these pricey, high-tech machines hanging around their home or workplace?
But Chicagoans do, in fact, have access to one at the Harold Washington Library in the South Loop, thanks to a partnership between the Chicago Public Library and Inventables, a Chicago startup that sells carving machines and materials.
The initiative began in 2013 when the library approached Inventables and asked if they’d be willing to put a machine in their Maker Lab, a Chicago Public Library workspace in Harold Washington. The lab is home to 3D printers, laser cutters and electronic cutters, and is overseen by Mark Andersen, the director of Learning and Economic Advancement at the Chicago Public Library.
“We wanted a place where people could come in, get introduced to the software, the hardware and these machines, but also be connected to the other organizations within the city,” Andersen said. “We have no barriers. It doesn’t matter who you are, how much money you have or how much formal education you have, you’re welcome.”
A few different models of Inventables’ 3D carving machine have cycled through the Maker Lab. But in 2016, it became home to the Carvey, the latest model that retails for $2,499.
“We’re trying to build communities and tools for the maker-journey,” said Zach Kaplan, founder and CEO of Inventables. “It’s not just for students and kids. It’s for adults, too. We’re definitely seeing a lot of entrepreneurs coming to use the Maker Lab.”
Inventables, which employs about 40 people at its West Loop office, has a customer base of 100,000 people, businesses and organizations. Since its inception in 2002, the company has raised $10 million in funding from venture capital firms, like New York-based Greycroft Partners and San Francisco-based True Ventures.
Kaplan said the machine can be useful to those who just want to learn a new craft, but also to entrepreneurs starting companies and need prototypes of their products.
Across the nation, libraries are increasingly looking for ways to remain relevant since books are much more affordable than they used to be. Fewer people are heading to libraries in general, and to combat that, librarians have needed to be more creative.
“They’re trying to think of what is next after books,” Kaplan said. And it looks like the trend could be leaning toward 3D carving machines.
“It’s really taken off this year,” he said.
Nearly 48,000 people visited the Maker Lab in 2016, Andersen said, adding that they try to host free classes once a month that educate attendees on how to use the machinery. The next Carvey class is scheduled for Sept. 26.
Columbia College Chicago’s library is also home to a Carvey machine, though it can only be accessed by those who are students there. Out in the suburbs, people can find a Carvey at the Northbrook Public Library and the Elmhurst Public Library.
Andersen said he’s working to open a second Maker Lab in another branch downtown or in one of the city’s neighborhoods, but is waiting for funding.
“In some people’s eyes, [the Maker Lab] keeps us more relevant,” Andersen said. “But what’s really good is that it still fits with our core mission of introducing people to new ideas and concepts.”