The Future is Now: 3D Printing in Your Home
Make Your Home Easier to Manage with Fun, Useful 3D Printing Projects
3D Printing has proven immensely useful in many of my DIY projects, from the dancing Web Bluetooth controlled robot to the Real-Life Chrome T-Rex game. But this post is not about how to use 3D printing for your next electronics project — it’s about how 3D printing can benefit your day-to-day life!
When talking to people about 3D printing, I often hear them talk about the supposed uselessness of the printer: “Yes, you can print tons of figurines and other decorative objects, but nothing really useful.” Obviously, most of these people have never owned a 3D printer, so their impression is mostly based on what they see on social media or hear from friends.
Ariella, my life partner, and I, have recently moved to a new home and found the 3D printer very useful in solving some of issues we discovered when setting up our new space. So in this post, I’m going to show you the problems we faced, and how we solved them with 3D-printing. I’m also going to give you some pointers to help you get started on your own 3D-printing journey from a programmer/engineering perspective.
Do it Yourself or Copy it Yourself?
The same holds true for 3D printing. Whenever I want to solve some issue, I first search for a solution online. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people have come up with some very clever solutions for loads of different problems, as we are going to see shortly!
Challenge #1: Too many cables… or not?
Organizing things is tricky, especially when it comes to cables. Think of how many different cables types are there just for USB: the standard “Printer” cable, USB-Mini, USB-Micro, USB Type-C, Micro to Type-C, USB Extension Cable…and these are just the most common ones.
After spending a few minutes looking online for a solution, I quickly fell in love with this Hive-shaped cable organizer:
Not too long after, I realized my 3D printer could also solve the mess of electronic dupont cables I had:
Here again, after a quick online search, I found a this amazing cable-comb design:
Then came the day where I had to organize my tool drawer. I had spools of electronics wire all over the place. This time, I couldn’t find a design that would do the trick for me, so I had to created my own: a simple pole that would hole up to 3 spools at a time. I imagine this can also be useful for other kinds of spools like sewing threads.
It took me about 10 minutes to design the part, and a hour or so to print it. I decided to share it on Thingiverse, so you can find the design there. More on how I design models for the printer just a few paragraphs below.
Challenge #2: Brushing our teeth
Enough with organizing cables and spools! Let’s move to the restroom. One day, going to brush her teeth, Ariella realized that our toothpaste tube was almost empty. So, how to get the most out of the last bit of the tube?
Apparently, toothpaste squeezer seems to be the first actually useful object that people who get a 3D printer print. And there are so many designs... So quick search and one hour later, and we had that sorted out too.
Time to move on to our first big challenge, where 3D printing really shined. We have a really small sink in our bathroom, and our toothbrush cup didn’t really fit there — it was placed on the edge of the tiny sink, half of it hanging in the air and leaning towards a small wooden closet we had. Not very convenient.
We wished that we had a small shelf to put it on, but no where we could find a small, 14cm shelf that would attach to the small closet we had. well, unless we designed and printed one — and so we did:
And it was a perfect fit with the toothbrush cup:
Designing this part took about an hour, and printing another 4 hours, but it solved the problem we had really nicely — something we couldn’t solve with any off-the-shelf product (pun intended ;-).
I also shared this design on Thingiverse, but this time with a nice feature — it is a parametric design, meaning that you can customize the model by changing the length/width of the shelf, as well as other parameters such as whether to round each of the corners. I’d hoped these would be useful features, and it seems like people are already finding them helpful!
Challenge #3: Printing in the Kitchen
Clips for the tablecloths? No worries, Thingiverse had us covered. This time, Ariella also added small engraved hearts inside them. She used Microsoft 3D Builder App to engrave the hearts into the model file she downloaded:
Soft-egg cup? Again, Thingiverse had us covered with so many amazing designs — it’s hard not to get inspired by the creativity there. Ariella is a big fan of Kinder eggs, so when she asked me to print the soft egg cup for her, I also secretly printed a matching screwing egg, and when she opened the egg, she found a small surprise inside:
So you can even use your 3D printer to propose, in a quite unusual way!
Challenge #4: Dirty walls
Well, they weren’t dirty when we moved-in, but one month later, our trash can was consistently leaving marks on the wall, and it would also not close properly at times, as the wall would interfere with the mechanism:
So Ariella designed a small bracket and used a double-sides glue to attach it to the back of the trash can. Problem solved!
Challenge #5: The Sink
For the grand finale, the most challenging design that we had so far. Both of us are fairly tall, but we had a low sink with a short tap, which led to my back aching when doing the dishes (no, it wasn’t just an excuse, I had to bend and it really hurt after a while):
The first prototype looked like this:
We used it for about two days, but it was constantly slipping sideways and the didn’t really allow use to use the tap handle and adjust the temperature of the water. So, back to the drawing board, the second prototype was a greater success:
We’ve been using it for about a month, and are pretty happy with it!
How to approach designing solutions with a 3D printer
First and foremost, don’t reinvent the wheel. Look for solutions other people who had similar problems posted before spending hours and hours designing a piece. It’s much easier to build upon something that works, rather than start from scratch.
I’ve already mentioned Thingiverse, which is like GitHub for printer-ready 3D models. They have more than 1 million different models uploaded by the community, and many of the models are parametric — you can customize their dimensions to your needs (just like the shelf I described above). Most of the models are also accompanied by printing instructions and photos showing what they look like when they are printed, some even have videos, like this brilliant Hairy Lion model.
You’ll need a 3D printer
Don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of space at home or a lot of budget to spend. I started my 3D printing journey with The Micro by M3D, which is pretty compact and sells for $349. You can see it printing a part of Purple Eye, my Web Bluetooth Robot, in the following time lapse:
Nowadays I have a Creality CR-20 Printer, which is much bigger (and noisier), but I’m very happy with it. If you are tight on budget, you can get pick up the Creality Ender 3 for about $200 — just a little more assembly required :-).
When choosing a 3D printer, I suggest to check the build dimensions, or the maximum size of objects it can print. Also make sure your printer comes with a heated bed (that’s pretty standard nowadays), and that there is a big enough online user community for your model (Facebook groups, subreddits, etc.), to help out if you get stuck :-).
You can find many articles comparing 3D printers (for example, this one), so I am not going to go into that here. The point is, you can get a pretty small printer if you are constrained in space, or a decent one for less than $200 if price is an issue.
If you don’t have the space, cash, or aren’t ready to invest fully in your own 3D printer, you may be able to find a resource in your community that has them as well! There’s usually a 3D printer available at your local maker space, and I’ve even heard of them starting to pop up in public libraries and schools!
One more note about cost…
You might be thinking, “Hey, Uri, this sounds expensive, and you haven’t even mentioned the cost of the plastic yet!”
True: getting going is a bit of an investment. But really, after that it’s surprisingly affordable. For most basic plastics, you’re looking at $25–30 dollars per kilogram, which, if you think about it, really isn’t so bad. Especially when you consider that a project like the shelf, you’re only using about 70g of materials, or about $2 worth of plastic.
Measure, Plan, Design, Print
Whenever you design a part, you probably want it to fit somewhere or something. So you will need to take some measurements before starting to design. I really suggest getting a digital caliper — I use this one. Whenever I approach a new design task, I first take measurements of everything and write them down.
The next step is planning. For more complex parts, like the shelf, I try to do a rough sketch on paper, writing the dimensions next to each line.
Part of planning a part is making sure it can actually be printed, and deciding on the orientation to print the part. Printers can not print on air, so you’ll need to make sure your design doesn’t have any parts just hanging out in space (or you will get a plastic spaghetti!). Sometimes you will need to split your part into 2 or more pieces, to make it easy to print, and then you can use bolts to attach the parts. You can see this technique in the tap extender I mentioned above. I find it very handy to have a bunch of M3 screws with different lengths, with matching nuts and washers.
Another two things you’ll want to think about is the thickness of the part, which affect its strength, and the orientation you’re printing it in. 3D printed parts are usually stronger on their width/length dimension, and weaker on their height dimension, since they are printed layer-by-layer.
This means that you’ll want to orient your object such that any force it’ll experience is on the width/length axis, since the layers are more likely to separate from each other when excessive force is applied on the top-bottom axis. The printer moves in different directions for each layer, too, further strengthening the width/length axis.
My go-to tool for designing 3D models is OpenSCAD. It is a powerful programming language that enables creation of models by writing code, and from my experience it’s very straightforward for programmers to use. I introduced it to several friends, and usually they are able to create pretty complicated designs after just one hour.
In addition to many 3D primitives, the language contains variables, loops, functions, so you can create program that generate different models based on various parameters. In fact, I mentioned above that my shelf model is a parametric design, which you can customize — as you may have guessed by now, it was created in OpenSCAD. All the customizable designs on Thingiverse are.
If you wish to get started with writing code for OpenSCAD, I wholeheartedly recommend the “Know only 10 things to be dangerous in OpenSCAD” tutorial. It teaches you the basics in about 15–20 minutes, and you end up with a nice bishop model.
So you planned and designed a part, and you’re about ready to print: great! Unfortunately, you’ve still got a few more things to decide before getting the printer going. You will need to make a few other choices such as which material to use, layer height, printing temperature, and fill amount. Although we don’t have space here to go into all the details, it’s important to get these parameters right! They greatly affect printing speed, the quality of the print, durability of the part, and the chances of the piece printing the way you want it to.
The most common materials for 3D printing nowadays are PLA, PETG, ABS and TPU/TPE. Each has unique properties — PLA is the usually the easiest to print, but it’s not good for outdoor use, as it starts to deform around 140 °F/60 ℃. It is, however, biodegradable and environment friendly, since it’s made out of corn starch.
ABS is usually stronger, can withstand temperatures of 100℃, but can deform while printing, requires higher temperature and good ventilation while printing, as the fumes are somewhat toxic. It can also be treated with Acetone to create very smooth prints. This is the kind of plastic your Legos are made of!
PETG, a.k.a. T-Glase, is my favorite. It’s pretty easy to print and has a shiny finish. It works wonders when printing vases, and is considered more food-safe than other materials (or at least, it’s being used by the food industry).
TPU and TPE are flexible materials, and are useful for printing objects such as cases for your phone. Other, less common materials, include Nylon, which is good for printing strong parts such as gears, ASA which is great for weather-proof parts, and HIPS.
There are many more exciting kinds of 3D printing materials, with new materials coming out all the time. You can find materials that have wood particles mixed-in, various metals and even ground coffee beans!
To sum up, there are plenty of options. Start with PLA, then as you grow experiment with new materials such as PETG and flexible filament.
So, should you get a 3D printer?
As you have probably by now, the value of the 3D printer wasn’t immediately clear for me when I first got it, and I initially printed mainly stuff for fun/decoration, or testing the limits of my printer, but over the time I discovered the printer was actually an extremely useful tool in many situations.
Owning a 3D printer is much more affordable and easier that it used to be, and as the community grows, there are more designs that you can simply download and print, and a lot of videos comparing printers, plastic filament brands, and explaining how to troubleshoot and maintain your printer.
Still, printing is a very complex mechanical process, which require extreme accuracy — we’re talking about 0.1mm and sometimes even tens of microns, so you can expect some level of tinkering and fine-tuning your printer if you want to print non-trivial parts or get very high quality prints.
There are many innovations that are making their way to the market — starting from affordable printers that can print with a UV-curable resin, printers that can print in full color, as well as silicone printers, clay printers, and even Nutella printers!
So, if you spent the time reading this far, and you don’t have a 3D printer yet, you should probably at least try to spend a few hours with one — perhaps at a local maker space, your school or university, or a at a friend’s. They are pretty common nowadays, so chances are you know someone who owns a printer. And even if not — visit a local 3D printer shop, they’d be happy to show you around.
If you’ve ever read any of my other posts, you know I’m a big fan of community, bringing people together to share what they’re working on so we can all see neat things others are doing and share what fun tricks we’ve discovered ourselves. So, unsurprisingly, I’ve got a fun request for you!
If you’ve printed something really cool, tell us in the comments! The more details the better! Was it hard? Did you get the print right on the first try? Has your object proven useful?
And if you haven’t yet gotten the chance to explore 3D printing, go on Thingiverse or one of the other sites, pick something out, and tell us how you think it might be useful in your own life!
I can’t wait to see what everyone shares!