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Practical uses for 3D printers — Parallax Forums

Practical uses for 3D printers

All- I was reading this thread:

and I thought; what has everybody been doing with these printers that is practical? I mean there is a huge cool factor, but can you use these things for something useful?



  • I don't own one, but have run pieces off at the local community college (for free!) So far I've made various brackets and adapters that fit OpenBeam extrusions. They like to see me because I'm making something useful instead of just another trinket.
  • You hit a valid point here.

    Years ago I jumped on that hype and got myself a RapMan3.1. Building it was fun, playing with it was fun, learning to do 3d-models was fun, but producing useful stuff was more or less a disaster.

    Besides small brackets and nice art-like stuff I found it unusable for production. As soon as parts get bigger you have to fight with warping. Different parts of your print cool down and the next layer is hot. Even a 5mm high plate to go under a Quick Start P1 will not be flat and even, but slightly bend.

    Printing wheels for the Parallax-motor-mount kit? Forget it.
    Replacing that broken knob on the Kitchen Stove, forget it, holds 3 days then gets brittle and breaks.
    Fixing that sun-visor-hinge on the MB-SL500, Forget it, one day in the car and it breaks.

    I tried a lot of things, but finally gave up.

    Maybe I jumped to early on that ship and the RapMan is a shitty printer, I do not know. But my personal experience is that 3d-printed parts are more proof of concept, not production level.

    I gave up on it, it is sitting around since at least 2 years, no use at all. I should have saved the money (and some more) to buy a small CNC.

  • Phil Pilgrim (PhiPi)Phil Pilgrim (PhiPi) Posts: 22,978
    edited 2018-04-10 05:31
    Back when 3D printers were kinda new, I bought a MakerBot Thing-O-Matic kit, which I assembled. I was able to make ONE useful thing from it before it quit working. Here it is, a drill attachment for spinning lenses into their lens holders:


    I designed it with RhinoCAD 3D. It's made of ABS, and I still use it for assembling TSL1401-DB and PropCAM modules. It saves an enormous amount of time over screwing the lenses in by hand.

    But, yeah, consumer-grade 3D printers still seem to be a novelty item. Based upon reports from the robotics class I used to teach and their experiences with the newer 3D printers they bought, they're still pretty fussy to operate, and anything you make takes a loooong time to fab.

    402 x 329 - 24K
  • I've built 'umbrellas' to stop misters in a vivarium affecting temperature sensors, various brackets and parts for r/c aircraft (holding GPS pucks, bomb-releases, etc.,).

    Using open-source Lidar data, I create (and sell) 3d versions of terrain. People like these as a gimmick, especially if the prints are centered round their house.

    3264 x 2448 - 2M
    979 x 734 - 334K
  • I recently retired and was looking to get into some hobbies. I saw an opportunity and went for it.

    I also built my 3D printer from a kit and like the open source software as well as the Marlin firmware.

    I mainly use PLA as it is a cheep plastic and does not smell as it prints. I build motor mounts and cases for things I am working on. I have printed servo wheels and servo horns that work great. I have even built a self balancing robot.

    If you think about it, the material is PLA which melts at about 180 degrees. It is also bio-degradable so it will not last in the sun or heat. There are other materials that are stronger such as ABS but that material smells as it prints.

    I like designing parts and then seeing them print out just like I drew them. For me it has been a great $200 investment. Without it, some of my Parallax projects would have been a none starter.

  • My 3D printing has mostly become a cost effective way to prototype enclosures/brackets before milling them from aluminum or a solid block of plastic. I have made runs of a few hundred small parts before though, mostly cable alignment aids, PCB supports, or other low-stress mechanical components. For things like brackets to hold transducers, it's far less expensive than going for metal parts if it's a mount and forget type of application. All that said, it's certainly not for precision, fiddly, or high cycle count things!

    LulzBot (Aleph Objects) is having an open house this Friday (April 13) in Loveland, CO. I'm headed up there, if anyone else will be around, give me a shout!
  • Model Railroading.

    The parts break eaisly, I have a bunch that can use 3d printer repair.

  • BeanBean Posts: 8,122
    edited 2018-04-10 14:32
    I purchased one of the first PrintRBot Jr. kit that PrintRBot sold. It looks exactly like the one in Make magazine.
    It was a real bear to build because the instructions were very poor.
    But, I learned a lot by building it. I still use it today, but the limited travel is a real bummer (4"x4"x4").

  • ercoerco Posts: 19,925
    edited 2018-04-10 14:40
    A great printer is 100% necessary for inventing & prototyping toys & CP & movie props & pitch models here in Los Angeles. People are making serious money off their $10K machines.Cheap ones are hobbies, and unreliable. Pros go for Mojo & Objet printers and use ABS... nobody uses PLA, it warps. Why don't I have one yet? Because I have two dozen friends that own several each, we have a big network and trade favors (relays and blinking LEDs remain black magic to most people). They keep their machines going 24/7, they are a robot slave machinist. Best time of the year is before Toy Fair, when new products are shown to the trade. They need LOTS of new parts and having a 3D printer is like printing money. The key is having a solid machine that prints flawlessly and reliably that doesn't require babysitting. Time is money.
  • ceptimusceptimus Posts: 129
    edited 2018-04-10 14:59
    I've printed motor mounts, hatch covers and the like for model aeroplanes. I designed and printed a complete tricopter and have printed maybe twenty or so of those for members in my flying club.

    I've printed a few things for the house:
    a tray that hooks around a pole in my shower that is useful for standing bottles of shampoo or similar on.

    new feet for an ironing board to replace the old rubber feet that cracked and perished - the new feet prevent the ends of the metal legs from scraping the floor.

    some extended feet for a work table in a workshop to raise it a bit higher so that it clears a radiator underneath.

    a new part leg for a plastic garden table - the old leg was accidentally damaged by a weed whacker.

    Also some solids of constant width to play with. These are on thingiverse if you want to print some for yourself.

  • At work, we have used our Epilog laser cutter for a vast number of projects and a little over a year ago, we added a 3D printer to our Engineering arsenal. For making production jigs and other tools, it has paid for itself time and time again. We use ESD filament mostly. Some things we have made:

    Masking caps for conformal coating (eliminates tedious tape masking processes)
    Prototyping bed of nails fixtures (these are a combination of laser cut plates and 3D printed parts, embedded into QXQ or Ingun bases)
    Allignment jigs
    Board holders for burn-in test stations
    RFID card holders (to hold the RFID card a specific distance from a unit being tested)
    Programming adapters (to hold spring pins in specific positions for programming boards without headers)
    Custom self-clamping, self-aligning test fixtures
    Board separators (we have an assembly that gets a daughterboard plugged on for testing and must be removed. It uses a high pin count, fine pitch SMT header, so separating the boards manually requires a lot of care. The jig we have applies pressure at very accurate points, so they separate easily and without risk)

  • xanaduxanadu Posts: 3,331
    edited 2018-04-10 20:08
    I had the Monoprice Maker Ultimate

    I bought it to prototype a product (for another company) that will go into full production this year. It paid for itself, and cut down on time allowing the ridiculous deadline to be met.

    I made a battery adapter for a flying wing and sold a handful on eBay with very satisfied customers.

    The rest is around the house items, gifts, and some positives for trying out molding with silicone and epoxy.

    I ended up selling it because like Erco said, it seems everyone I know has one. When I look at the nice printers that cost a lot, I feel as though I'd rather own a metal lathe (and convert to CNC), or a laser cutter, and continue to outsource the 3D printing. I sure do miss it though.

    Edit: I noticed the Monoprice printer is $700 now. It was $500 when I purchased one. I have no idea why the price went up and the specs stayed the same. It was a steal at $500, especially with the replacement warranty and the 24v system.

    Edit2: Use coupon code "ULT3D" at checkout and you can still get that printer for $500.

  • I've made a few successful things with the 3D printers at our local hacker space ....

    Replacement lawnmower gas cap I accidentally ran over (ABS ... PLA dissolves)
    Battery holders for 18650 batteries all the way from 1 cell to 6 cells
    High speed Electrostatic Motor
    Electrostatic Accelerator (Linear version of an Electrostatic motor)
    Parabolic microphone dish
    Automatic fish tank feeder
    Seat belt catch clip
    Cookie cutters
    Piezo resonator chamber
    Brushless motor
    Replacement window clip
    Precise coil winding forms
    Beveled edge face plate
    Custom wall switch plate
    New years eve glasses
    Zipper lift
    Tank treads
    Gripper adapter for standard servo
    Joystick gimbals
    Pill Dispenser
    Negative molds for casting

    ... And I just now finally decided to buy a 3D printer. Should arrive tomorrow actually

  • Phil Pilgrim (PhiPi)Phil Pilgrim (PhiPi) Posts: 22,978
    edited 2018-04-10 22:06
    And I just now finally decided to buy a 3D printer.
    What kind? Why did you pick that particular one? And which others did you consider before making your decision?

  • Beau SchwabeBeau Schwabe Posts: 6,461
    edited 2018-04-11 01:04

    Mostly cost and reviews from ... "The Best 3D Printers of 2018" ... I looked at Delta designs, and they are cool and all, I just have no experience with them.

    We'll see how the 6"x6"x6" printing area footprint works out on this one ...

    I mostly do small stuff anyway. I can get creative if I need something larger.

    I just got tired of cleaning the head on the 3D printers at the hacker space, because the person before me didn't bother. I've torn down and rebuilt more 3D printer heads than I care to think about. I just wanted my own.

  • To list everything useful that I have 3d-printed would be to long.
    All things with good quality PLA, and printed in correct orientation for needed strength. If cross layer strength needs a bit extra, thinner layers and higher temp.

    I have printed sprockets and roller chain for small lightweight applications (many).

    I have printed PLA replacements for Aluminum extrusions (does not warp as bad as the aluminum in 3D printers, and I can always print a replacement if needed).

    I have printed wind gauges. Also one axial wind mill that does useful work (small wind generator, simple DC motor conversion for the actual generator).

    Then there is the 95% complete 3D printer of my design, for which all parts are printable excepting only the steppers, wiring, controller, drivers, hot-end, DC-Motors (even the fans are printed), and one toothed gear in the extruder drive. I do not think there is another design that is as much printed (also uses my printed sprockets and chains).

    Various bearings.

    A new mount for one of the front wheels on my primary wheelchair (printed in PLA, layer height of 0.05 [that was difficult] and print temperature of 225 C).

    Mounts for displays used with my RPi's.

    Cases for projects, as well as for RPi's and Propeller boards.

    Hooks, fasteners, etc.

    Wheels for small bots.

    And some novelties, of course.

    AND much much more, this is just the list of things I can remember quickly off the top of my head.

    Surprisingly enough my current favorite 3D printer is a cheap TronXY X1, with the aluminium extrusions replaced by PLA versions, and the Z axis extended to 800mm. My other much more expensive (and older) 3D printers can not do nearly as well.

    I am hoping that if I ever complete my own design that it will become my favorite, otherwise I should at least learn from it.
  • For me my 3D printer is a novelty item. I haven't use it in years. PLA is to soft and ABS tends to warp as it cools and most of the time it pops off the table. A simple cure for the pop offs is to cover the table with blue masking tape. You definitely need to design your own parts on some sort cad platform or else you'll be stuck downloading stuff off of thingiiverse. That's ok if you like plastic cats and phone cases.
  • ceptimusceptimus Posts: 129
    edited 2018-04-11 09:12
    Agree with Bob that you need to be able to use a 3D design program to get good value from your 3D printer. If you're considering buying a 3D printer but aren't yet competent at 3D design, you should perhaps try learning 3D design first and see if you enjoy it. Doing it this way round has the advantage of not needing to spend any money up front.

    Recommended free CAD programs to try, in no particular order: FreeCAD, OpenSCAD, TinkerCAD, Fusion360 (the last one is a commercial product and not open source, but you can use it for free for non-commercial hobby use).
  • +1 on the need to be able to use a CAD program. Though even a child can use TinkerCAD.

    I personally prefer OpenSCAD, it is quite powerful and easy to use. It is a scripting language based CAD, using a language that has a lot of similarities to the procedural programming languages we use daily.

    99% of everything I have printed has been my design, implemented using OpenSCAD.
  • OpenSCAD is great and I still use it occasionally. I learned solid works and moved to OnShape online. I highly recommend them if you can live with everything being open to the world in the free tier. For the last year or so, Fusion 360 has become my daily driver and I don't see that changing for the foreseeable future. The integrated CAM makes it easy to go from design to 3D printed prototype to milling the part out of aluminum. Best of all, it's free for anyone making under $100k/year.
  • ercoerco Posts: 19,925
    My 3D printer friends all use Solidworks. It's prohibitively expensive unless you use daily it to make a living.
  • max72max72 Posts: 1,152
    I use the printer to create small boxes, adapters and stuff for my surveying job.
    At the moment I'm using a veri cheap prusa clone.
    PLA is good for rapid testing, easy to print and with a nice finish.

    For more serious work where mechanical resistance is important ABS is the way to go.
    To improve the result you can dip the object in acetone for a couple of seconds. Acetone (rapidly) melts ABS, so this way you fuse the layers togheter avoiding delamination.

    I usually create the models myself. I recently discovered Onshape, I'll post about it in a dedicated thread.

  • ceptimusceptimus Posts: 129
    edited 2018-04-13 18:10
    Latest use of my 3D printer (yesterday) was to design and print a new bearing for my up-and-over garage door mechanism. The door has a long helical spring along the top that provides the torque to a long 'axle' - just longer than the door width. The axle runs through the spring and has plastic cones on either end. The door weight is supported by wires that wind onto the cones as the door is raised. The old plastic bearing at one end of the axle had collapsed and the door operation was very stiff with the metal-to-metal and misaligned contact. I couldn't insert a new bearing in one piece without major dismantling so I designed and printed a new one as two half shells - after the manner of the big end bearings on an engine's connecting rods. So far it's working well.
  • If your printer can print Tech-g, I very strongly recommend that material for tools, fixtures, jigs. It's suitable for a lot of other things too, but it's translucent look puts some people off.

    By far my favorite material.

    I'm using an industrial grade machine, more than 5k, but not so much as the usual big name brand machines.

    Having heated bed and chamber makes a big difference in both being able to manage shrink, and in the variety of materials available. I actually never use PLA.

    My goto materials are:

    Tech-g by far the most precise, low shrink material. I've hit. 005" tolerances on this stuff consistently.

    ASA. A bit nicer to print than ABS is, similar mechanical properties.

    TPU a good 95 A can be printed on a lot of machines, no heated chamber or bed needed.

    HIPS for support, rafts and other construction needed to build the part. And a support specific to Tech-g I don't know the polymer family for right now.

    Heavy pigmented polymers tend to have a bit different properties than natural, or very light pigments do. Sometimes a bit different printer profile.

    Favorite nozzle is a .4mm You can overdrive it to .5mm and under drive it to about .35mm and keep good print quality.

    I'll do a .6mm or .8mm for really big builds.

  • SRLMSRLM Posts: 5,045
    I work for Formlabs, maker of the Form2 3D printer. Practical uses include engineering prototypes, artistic models, medical models, and digital dentistry.

    On a personal level, I've used 3D prints for pointless things like a dice tower and a 3D marble maze (that's really hard, since you can't see the marble in the interior sections). I've also made more practical things like a nice nameplate for the front door and replacement game pieces.

    Internally at Formlabs we also use 3D prints on pretty much every prototype and jig we create. It's really handy to be able to create little joiner bits and pieces without any hassle.
  • GenetixGenetix Posts: 1,515
    edited 2018-04-14 06:41
    3D Printing used to referred to as FDM or Fused Deposition Modeling and recently I saw a company refer to is as Additive Manufacturing.
  • Now, how long before one of these become affordable for hobby level uses or a shared group of like minded developers.....
  • potatoheadpotatohead Posts: 10,179
    edited 2018-04-15 21:36
    I saw a company refer to is as Additive Manufacturing.

    Could have been the guys I'm working with. (I'm not gonna promote on the forum here, but will share experiences so far)

    We've got people out there doing manufacturing on FDM. There is a cross-over point, where tooling and standard practice makes the best financial sense. But, for small volume?

    It's there today. The number of use cases isn't super large, but they are growing. Two things are contributing to all of that:

    One of them is open materials. Tons of new polymers are becoming available. One can make a lot more kinds of parts, and do so with reasonable precision, quality and cost, than made sense just a few years ago.

    The other is growing availability of machines capable of printing with those materials in an effective, consistent way.

    IMHO, the key thing to understand here, is additive manufacturing is, itself, added to whatever processes you've got now. It's not a replacement. Identifying small volume additive production cases can fund a printer and staff very quickly. Savings are significant. Returns, as in net new revenue, or net lower cost adding to margin, can be had in as little as a few months.

    The vast majority of use cases today are jigs, fixtures, masks, and other recurring items needed for end part production. Some real end use part cases are viable now, and the strongest of these are small to low volume, produce on demand, frequent change type cases. AM is a clear, easy win for these, where they can be found. One interesting case that appears to be on the growth path is the prototype moving right to production one. Iterate a few times, and once the design meets requirements and performs, just continue with that process, perhaps making a small cell to improve on production. Should it grow and scale enough to exceed what can be done with a small print farm, the tooling needed is funded from the AM success. This is super cool. Lower barrier to entry for niche products.

    On that note, AM is making it more possible to make sustainable businesses that serve thousands or maybe even hundreds of users. Lower barrier to entry, ability to make changes and nail a niche, lower or no tooling costs, all combine to make a smaller scale operation viable that wasn't before.

    We get a new polymer sent our way nearly every week right now! It's nuts what is out there for use today. Open printers ( g-code machines), and open materials, (no DRM to limit source materials, or material sources) are disrupting established FDM norms in play today. Whole new game coming on line, and it's a lot of fun right now!
  • Oddly this is the column on sparkfun's website today:

  • Phil,

    Mostly cost and reviews from ... "The Best 3D Printers of 2018" ... I looked at Delta designs, and they are cool and all, I just have no experience with them.

    We'll see how the 6"x6"x6" printing area footprint works out on this one ...

    I mostly do small stuff anyway. I can get creative if I need something larger.

    I just got tired of cleaning the head on the 3D printers at the hacker space, because the person before me didn't bother. I've torn down and rebuilt more 3D printer heads than I care to think about. I just wanted my own.

    Wow, at $200 bucks, it might be fun to buy and play.

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