TAMPA — For many, a scene on Grey's Anatomy involving a 3-D printer may have been their first exposure to a seemingly futuristic technology that is in widespread use right now around Tampa Bay.
The use of 3-D printers has grown steadily since the 1980s, when they were used almost exclusively in large government labs. These days, you can drop by the main branch of the Tampa Public Library and try it out for yourself.
Students and faculty at the University of South Florida are taking advantage of the extensive possibilities of 3-D printing. And a number of Tampa Bay businesses such as Engineering and Manufacturing Services and Tangible Labs are turning profits using high-end, commercial printers to mass produce such items as medical devices, military equipment and prototypes.
Increasingly, you can even do 3-D printing at home, with devices that used to carry a price tag of thousands of dollars now costing as little as a few hundred at Best Buy and Staples.
In 1914, a fire burned down the original dorm at the site of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, killing at least six children and two staff members. No blueprints or photos of the building remain, presenting a big problem for researchers who wanted to understand how the fire spread.
With the help of Howard Kaplan at USF's Advanced Visualization Center, lead Dozier researcher Erin Kimmerle used descriptions from Jackson County residents and former school staffers to build a 3-D printed model of what the school would have looked like.
"I think it gave a common vocabulary to the physical properties of the school," Kaplan said. "From there, we can continue research on it and continue changing the digital model, reprinting parts that we need if we find new witness testimony that says otherwise."
The 3-D model allowed researchers to also test different scenarios of where the fire was said to have started and how it spread.
Stories like those are no longer uncommon at USF.
In several university departments, 3-D printing technology has implanted itself into cross-disciplinary research: engineering students work with USF Health researchers to create models of hearts with birth defects from CT scans; architecture students create to-scale, 3-D printed models of entire cities. Even fine arts students are using the technology to 3-D print their digital sculptures.
In the John F. Germany Public Library in downtown Tampa, families, techies and aspiring entrepreneurs are seeing this developing technology up close.
In November, library staff unveiled the Hive, a multimedia and technology hub nestled on the third floor. The Hive boasts two mid-level 3-D printers in addition to a recording studio, an art center and a robotics center.
Classes using freely available 3-D modeling software are taught weekly to Hillsborough County residents, and staff members encourage them to use what they learn and take advantage of the free 3-D printing.
Hillsborough County and Friends of the Library fully fund the Hive, offering four hours of 3-D printing per month at no cost.
Principal librarian Megan Danak said the 3-D printers attract a lot of attention.
"We work with the everyday users off the street and people who want different levels of what they want to do with 3-D printing," she said. "Some people just want to make little trinkets, but some want to make prototypes or print pieces for their model cars and at-home products."
Printers used at the Hive have become the standard in consumer-level and at-home 3-D printing.
The Hive provides hourlong courses in some of the more user-friendly and free 3-D software such as Tinkercad and Blender, allowing students to tinker with their creations at home.
Library technical assistant and Hive staffer Taynisha Berengher said she is surprised most by how quickly young people are picking up on the technology.
"We've had kids as young as 9 or 10 years old blow us away with what they can create after a class or two," she said.
The Hive has also worked with some young entrepreneurs looking to create prototypes of their new inventions.
In addition to The Hive, groups of tech-savvy and creative individuals have created what they call "hackerspaces" to pool money for 3-D printers and other technologies, as well as to share ideas and knowledge. They fund the purchase of printers through memberships to the hackerspace.
Groups such as Tampa Hackerspace and St. Pete Makers, which just recently entered the hackerspace scene, hold classes for members and the public to learn about 3-D printing and software.
Even if the technology remains more popular commercially and within the confines of research, USF's Kaplan said the technology will ultimately have a huge impact on the everyday lives of consumers — from 3-D printed medical devices, bio-printed organs and a more tactile and visual education experience.
"People come and tell me all the time, 'Oh, did you see Grey's Anatomy? They're printing body parts,' " Kaplan said. "We're not there yet, but there's a lot of things in the future of 3-D printing to be excited for."