It's technology that even a toddler can appreciate -- and it's coming to a library near you.
Perched on his grandmother's hip, 2-year-old Josh Bielskas, of Ronkonkoma, peered at the red laser beaming at a tiny rubber ducky on the platform of a three-dimensional scanner at Smithtown Library's Nesconset branch.
The duck's image appeared layer by layer on a neighboring computer screen, which could then transmit the dimensions to a 3-D printer that reproduced it in plastic form.
Witnessing the demonstration prompted Josh to think of other objects that could be replicated, said his grandmother, Judy Bielskas, 66, of Smithtown.
"There's a display of little cars [in the library], and he said, 'Oh, they could make a truck or a Big Wheels,' " said Bielskas, who herself had never come face-to-face with a 3-D printer. "I liked it. I'm trying to think of applications that we might be able to use at home. It's amazing."
Such engagement is the aim of two 3-D printing exhibits that are traveling to most of Suffolk County's 56 libraries this year through the Suffolk Cooperative Library System.
"Libraries are trying to move into the future -- 3-D printing is part of the future, so we're bringing that awareness to the public," said Roger Reyes, business manager at the Suffolk library system. "Where could you go to see 3-D printing? Now you can go see one at your local library."
The 3-D printing technology dates back to the 1980s, but gained broader commercial appeal in the 2000s as the technology became more efficient and less expensive. It has been used for wide-ranging purposes -- from prototypes for shoe and jewelry designs to models of bones and internal organs.
The possibilities seem to be endless -- as evidenced by this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, where a 3-D printer cranked out Oreo cookies based on what flavors were trending on Twitter. NASA even plans to send a 3-D printer into space this fall to produce tools so astronauts don't have to carry spare parts on each mission.
Suffolk Cooperative Library System supplies participating libraries with a complete set of 3-D printing tools. They consist of a MakerBot digitizer that scans an existing object up to 8 by 8 inches using a camera and two lasers and creates a 3-D digital file; a replicator, which makes the object layer by layer when an extruder heats PLA plastic loaded on the back of it on a spool; and a computer with accompanying software that allows users to modify what is scanned or downloaded.
Users can opt not to use the scanner and select from preloaded projects, create their own projects via computer-aided design programs and transfer them on an SD card to download onto the PC, or download projects from open-source files on the Internet at websites such as thingiverse. com or tinkercad.com
At about $5,000 for the set, the exhibit offers libraries an opportunity to try out the technology for up to two weeks and decide whether they want to purchase it for their patrons, Reyes said.
Michele Lauer-Bader, library director of the Half Hollow Hills Community Library, said the library is considering purchasing a 3-D printer after it was a hit with patrons earlier this month. "People responded incredibly to it. . . . we all were sort of sad that it left," she said. "Two weeks wasn't long enough."
Robert Lusak, library director of the Smithtown Special Library District, said the exhibit shows that "The library isn't just about books and movies. Whatever the latest is in technology, we as the library want to be able to offer that kind of tool to our community."
Chess sets and bracelets
Smithtown librarian Patty Thomson said the MakerBot system is user-friendly and that the library set up drop-in hours where patrons asked questions and received assistance to print projects that included half of a chess set, chain-link bracelets and a green frog model complete with internal body parts.
Projects can take as little as 15 minutes or as long as 31/2 hours, she said.
"This is a gateway to somebody's interest in maybe computer programming or . . . picking up a book to read about 3-D fabricating," Thomson said. "As much as it is. . . . [a] great example of the technology, it's so much more than that, which is really a microcosm of what we are as libraries."
James Olney, library director of the Northport-East Northport Library, said he was inspired by young patrons who came up with ideas of what to create with the printer in December when the exhibit debuted there. "They were seeing it as a tool that they probably will, a few years from now, have in their own home," he said.
Dave Battin, 56, of Northport, printed a miniature version of the 3-foot-tall Buddha sculpture on his front lawn by downloading a project file that he designed.
"To my amazement, it actually printed," said Battin, adding that watching the object come to life made him feel "like an expectant father."
"It's like a little robot printing out an object that theoretically was never there," he said. "Any library is foolish not to take advantage of it."
WHERE TO SEE 3-D PRINTERS
March 21-April 4: Bay Shore-Brightwaters
March 28-April 3: Smithtown (Kings Park)
April 4-17: Hauppauge, Shelter Island
April 18-May 1: Southold
May 2-15: Middle Country, Babylon
May 16-29: East Islip, Connetquot
May 30-June 12: North Babylon, Port Jefferson
June 13-26: West Babylon, Blue Point-Bayport
June 27-July 10: Mattituck, Brookhaven
July 11-24: Sachem, West Hampton
July 25-Aug. 7: Sayville, Comsewogue
Aug. 8-21: Emma S. Clark
Aug. 22-Sept. 4: Floyd Memorial, Rogers Memorial
Sept. 5-18: South Country, Commack
Sept. 19-Oct. 2: Harborfields, North Shore
Oct. 3-16: Mastic Moriches Shirley, Smithtown (Commack branch)
Oct. 10-16: Smithtown (Main branch)
Oct. 17-30: Babylon
Nov. 14-27: Cold Spring Harbor
Source: Suffolk Cooperative Library System