I must admit, I’ve been a closet 3D printing skeptic. The 3D printing hype machine says it’s going to save the economy, feed the hungry and cure cancer. But for something being touted as The Next Big Thing in manufacturing, it seems like all you can actually make are cheap plastic trinkets. Like dollar store goods, only more expensive. And crappier looking. Yoda heads, anyone?
I went digging on Thingiverse, Shapeways and Ponoko to see if there was anything I’d actually make, and what I found surprised me. Set aside art and jewelry, if you enjoy making things there are plenty of practical, every-day creations to justify the purchase. Especially when you can get a decent 3D printer for $450.
Now, having done the research, I have to swallow some of my skepticism. I’m buying a 3d printer.
Here are ten practical things I want to make.
1) iPhone cases
At the Apple store even a bumper is going to cost you $30. With a 3D printer, you could print a new case design every week. And there are a lot of beautiful designs out there.
2) Replacement parts
If you like to fix things, a 3D printer is magic. When a small plastic part breaks, you no longer have to throw the whole product away. This guy’s dishwasher had a broken handle, so he printed a new one.
3) Smartphone accessories
3D printers have come up with innumerable little ways to get more out of your smartphone, various stands, cord wrappers, sound amplifiers and camera attachments like this cheap and effective macro lens.
4) Camera gear
Photographers are willing to spend serious money for the right gear, and manufacturers set prices accordingly. From tripod mounts to lens cap holders, camera buffs can 3D print inexpensive accessories made to fit their kit.
From a tray for washing microscope slides to custom lens mounts, you can 3D print whatever tools you need to do science. Good for the grad student on a budget, or for family science projects. You can even print this anemometer.
7) Wallets and purses
It turns out you can make a great wallet or an interesting purse out of plastic. Like the iPhone case, this really changes the way you think about these kinds of accessories. If you are making them yourself you can experiment with designs you might not buy in the store.
A cheap quartz clock movement and a little 3D printing, and you have a beautiful clock. Pick from many styles.
Look around your house and you’ll probably find a lot of small plastic containers. You can print those, and tailor them to their purpose, like this toothbrush holder.
If you are a Lego fan (and if you are reading this, you probably are), imagine printing any shape you want and just plugging it directly into the Lego universe. I guess you could even print a Lego-compatible Yoda head.
Obviously if you want to mass produce something there are more efficient tools than a desktop 3D printer. The same could be said about printing with ink. If you want to publish a bestselling paperback, you don’t do that at home. But no one doubts the value of an inkjet printer.
All the hype aside, for small plastic parts, when you factor in shipping and customization, a home 3D printer actually makes sense today.