Cathie Anderson

Patrons at Sacramento’s Arcade Library get charge out of 3-D design, printing

The HexFlex tool weighs 2 ounces in stainless steel or black oxide and 1.1 ounces in titanium, say creators Nate Zavaleta and Alex Smith. When launching their product on Kickstarter, they found that titanium is the “it” metal with backers.
The HexFlex tool weighs 2 ounces in stainless steel or black oxide and 1.1 ounces in titanium, say creators Nate Zavaleta and Alex Smith. When launching their product on Kickstarter, they found that titanium is the “it” metal with backers. Courtesy of HexFlex

The staff of Sacramento’s Arcade Library never knows when lightning will strike at the Design Spot, a 3-D design and printing lab, but the charged atmosphere has led plenty of everyday people to become inventors.

Last year, for instance, Placerville cousins Nate Zavaleta and Alex Smith designed a lightweight, multiuse tool for cyclists and snowboarders and then printed out 3-D prototypes at what’s come to be known as The Spot. After securing $70,968 in startup capital on Kickstarter, they told me, the pair selected a manufacturer in China.

They now sell, on average, 2,000 to 3,000 of their snowflake-shaped HexFlex tools each month.

“I just happened to go there because they had a 3-D printing workshop,” the 25-year-old Zavaleta said. “It’s a pretty awesome setup. I definitely don’t think that the HexFlex would have come to fruition without that key component. It was the perfect incubator for trying out new ideas and developing new designs.”

In other words, shazam? Yes, said Zavaleta, a longtime snowboarder who for years was frustrated when he didn’t have the right tool in hand to tighten his bindings.

“I came up with the design just before last season,” he said. “I just wanted a tool that was easy to keep around with me and functional and had a cool look to it.”

On the tips of the snowflake or tucked in its crevices are various wrench heads, screwdrivers and bottle openers – a total of 15 different devices. The snowflake also has a hole in it, so it can hang on a keychain.

“The main tool for snowboarding is the ... No. 3 Phillips screwdriver,” Zavaleta said. “It’s basically the main nuts and bolts on snowboard bindings for tightening any part of the board.”

Smith, 19, said he gets a lot more use from the three Allen wrenches on the HexFlex because he rides a bike everywhere, including to his classes at UC Davis.

Stainless-steel versions of the HexFlex sell for $19.99, black oxide for $24.99 and titanium for $99.99. They come in metric and standard measurements.

Jessica Zaker, branch supervisor at the Arcade Library, 2443 Marconi Ave., said she hasn’t heard of any other businesses being born at The Spot, but she thinks the atmosphere is definitely charged.

“We had a gentleman come in with a knob from an old ham radio that needed to be replaced,” she said. “Another volunteer worked with him to teach him how to use SolidWorks, one of the (computer-aided design) programs. He learned enough to replicate the part and have it printed all in one day.”

Then there’s the Jesuit High School robotics team, she added. They won a gold medal in the Marine Advanced Technology contest last summer for their underwater, remotely operated vehicles, which used electronic housing printed at the Design Spot.

Equally as important, Zaker said, people are starting to use the library’s equipment – four computers and three printers – to simply make small improvements in their daily lives. For instance, they come in to design and produce business-card holders or desk organizers for their offices. Design Spot volunteer Tom Sanderson is working with the Crocker Art Museum to reproduce some of its sculptures so that sight-impaired people can touch the copies.

Zaker used a printer to produce a rainbow-colored toy tiger from the bioplastic filament used in the 3-D printers.

“It’s pretty labor-intensive because you need to swap out the different filaments,” she said. “In order to print the different colors, you actually have to stop the print, change out the different filaments and start it again.”

The 3-D software and printers have been available since spring 2013. Already a coterie of inventors and designers have become regulars at The Spot, Zaker said, camping out with their laptops and using the printer. Users also have begun to make donations, such as the plastic filament used to produce objects and new computer software.

Open three days a week, The Spot is manned by library staffer Charles Dale and Sanderson. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the two busiest days, they put out a sign-up list at 3:30 p.m. for the four computers, Zaker said. Many on the wait list end up watching other designers, talking, advising and collaborating.

For those who want to learn, Dale offers a monthly class, listed on the library’s Web page and in its newsletter. Want individual coaching? Saturday mornings are your best bet, Zaker said, as they’re fairly quiet, but both Sanderson and Dale have taught plenty of people on busy days, too.

Call The Bee’s Cathie Anderson, (916) 321-1193. Follow her on Twitter @CathieA_SacBee.

Design Spot

The Arcade Library’s 3-D lab space has three Makerbot Replicator 2 machines, a Mojo Desktop 3-D printer and a PrintrBot Jr.

Hours: Tuesdays: 4-8 p.m.; Wednesdays: 4-8 p.m.; Saturdays: 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Classes: Library staffer Charles Dale offers one class each month. For details, visit the library website,

Location: Arcade Library, 2443 Marconi Ave., Sacramento