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BeAM aims to improve sustainability, accessibility

3D printers sit in Murray Hall's BeAM Makerspace on Feb. 10, 2023.

The University's BeAM, or  "Be A Maker" spaces, recently introduced a new cloud-based printing initiative — 3DPrinterOS.

The software allows Makerspace patrons to begin 3D prints virtually instead of having to physically connect their computers to the printers. 

Reese Letts, a BeAM program assistant, described BeAM as a place that promotes student creativity. Before 3DPrinterOS’s installation, she said the 3D printing process was far more tedious and time-consuming.

But with 3DPrinterOS, Letts said the overall printing experience is more streamlined. Participants are notified in real-time of the number of filaments needed, she said, how many filaments are left and the color chosen for the project.

"Depending on people's personal preferences, there's a lot of different softwares that people like to use and 3DPrinterOS accepts all of those," she said. 

BeAM director Kenny Langley said that, along with technological renovation, BeAM is devoted to improving its mission of environmental sustainability. 

“In our trainings and through reinforcement on the floor, when people are working on projects, we encourage them to repurpose materials,” Langley said. 

Langley said that BeAM is currently investigating sustainability within the printing process itself. 

“We’ve been pushing toward a better solution for a 3D printer filament, but it wasn’t commercially available,” he said. “We’re looking for who is going to lead this and take it to scale, and it’s been colorFabb.”

ColorFabb is a company involved with the making of 3D printer filaments, providing BeAM with a copolyester filament known as colorFabb XT. The company is now producing a biobased and biodegradable alternative called allPHA. 

Although not finalized, Langley said he hopes allPHA material will soon be included in Makerspaces. And, after testing the biodegradable filament, BeAM will support the start of providing allPHA to students through a partnership with Sustainable Carolina.

Levi Tox, a BeAM program specialist, said one of the biggest “double-edged swords” for people who frequently use 3D printers is their large use of plastic. 

He said the ability to dispose of prints safely is a major precedent not only for UNC but also for other universities looking to minimize their ecological impact. 

Tox said that with the introduction of 3DPrinterOS, the number of failed prints has also decreased. Previously, there was no indication of whether the 3D printer would have enough filament to finish the print. With 3DPrinterOS, patrons can now pause or stop the print entirely to minimize waste. 

Along with the new software, Langley said his goal is to expand the Makerspace network to other University areas like the UNC Adams School of Dentistry.

“For me, it's to stabilize the system and move it from a startup to more settled, predictable systems so that we're operating, training our staff adequately, and creating great professional development opportunities for staff and users,” Langley said. 

Tox added that BeAM is constantly changing its policies, such as revising training modules to include its updates. 

“BeAM is always changing,” he said. “That’s kind of its job. That’s kind of the point.” 


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