My 3D Printing Design Process: Making a Smart Bedroom
As I continue to see my 3D printing and design skills grow, I find more and more opportunities to create something useful using my 3D printer. For my latest project, I though it would be good to document my design process. Note that this article won't teach you specific steps to learning how to use 3D CAD or modeling software; instead this is an overview of my creative process and the steps I take to make something useful.
My goal in sharing my process from start to finish is to show that it is easy. Almost anyone can do this, and by showing how simple it really is, I hope to inspire others to pick up their own 3D printer.
When I create a 3D print to solve a problem, I follow roughly the same process each time. First, I will determine, in detail, what the problem is that I need to solve. Next, I will create a rough sketch with measurements of what I would like to create. After that, I will work in various 3D modeling tools to design a 3D printable model. Finally, I will fine-tune the model using rapid-prototyping methods until I have a final design.
For this project, I will be designing a custom mount for an Amazon Echo Dot and a reading lamp. This mount will be attached to the back of the headboard on a bed that has no other space to mount it. It will hide the Echo Dot out of sight, but where it will still be functional. Basically, I'm making myself a smart bed with a lamp!
Pre-Work: How to Find a 3D Print Project Idea.
The best way I've found to come up with an idea is to always think of 3D printing first. By that I mean, with each small home problem that comes up, I try to first thing "Can I solve this with a 3D printed part?". Sometimes the answer is simply no. I may have an idea for a design, but I know from experience that a 3D printer part might not be best.
Some examples where 3D printing might not be the best idea include:
Parts that require major strength: 3D printing at home is generally not best used for situations where strength is required. For example, it might not be the best idea to create a bracket for a bookshelf and print it in PLA filament. The weight of the books and the brittleness of PLA could lead to a situation where the part may fail over time. Definitely never use 3D printing for something structural or that is meant to hold the weight of a person, it just isn't safe!
Big things: Home-scale 3D printers are generally pretty small. Creating something larger than about 5"-7" will just not be possible with the more common printers on the market. Unless you picked up a larger than average printer, the size will be a limiting factor.
Extreme conditions: Generally, this would mean extreme heat or cold, or something that is constantly in the sun or water. The most common 3D print material for homes, PLA, is easy to work with, but it's somewhat brittle.
All is not lost though! There are plenty of opportunities to use 3D printing in a practical way. I seem to find new uses all the time, including the project in this article. If you would like examples of practical 3D prints, check out my list of 10 practical prints here.
3D printing has some limitations, but it's excellent for when you have a unique problem. Recently I found myself in a situation where the product I needed didn't exist and there were only a few options:
Get something "sort of" like what I wanted. With this option though, I'd probably be annoyed every time I looked at it because it wasn't quite right.
Have someone else make it. Generally anything totally custom like this can be expensive.
Design my own and 3D print it. With just a little effort, this would be cheap and I'd get exactly what I wanted!
Step 1: Identify the Problem
As anyone with a 3D printer can attest, it's easy to find excuses to use your printer even if it might not be that practical. Sometimes (let's be honest, most times...) it would be simpler to purchase an item. That said, any excuse to use a 3D printer is fun! Once you've had some initial "will this work" thoughts, it's time to break the problem down in to "must haves".
The Current Problem
Recently I purchased a new headboard for my bedroom. The only problem is, this new headboard is no longer compatible with my clip-on reading lamp. In addition, I have an Echo Dot that currently just sits on top of the headboard, but for aesthetic reasons I would like to hide it.
This lamp has to clip somewhere behind the bed. The Echo Dot should be hidden behind the headboard as well.
My goal is to create a mounting bracket that will screw in to the back of the headboard. It should hide the Echo Dot, and should have a space to clip my lamp to. Basically, I'd like to use an Echo Dot and 3D printer to create a smart bed! Now I need to define a few "must-haves" to inspire my design.
This mounting bracket should be strong enough to hold both the lamp and the Echo Dot.
The bracket should be low-profile so I can keep the bed up against the wall.
It can't interfere with the function of the Dot or the lamp. (for example, it shouldn't block the microphone or speakers of the Dot. It also shouldn't keep the lamp from being adjustable.)
The part should be 3D printable in one piece. (This isn't really a must-have because I could always do multiple parts, but it would be really nice).
Now I have defined a problem and a list of wants for how I want it to turn out. From here, I'll move on to the beginning stages of design.
Step 2: Design on Paper
With my problem in hand and some initial ideas swirling in my brain, it's time to sketch. For this particular issue, I will take a two-part approach.
Just to get some ideas out, I like to draw rough sketches without any any formal measurements. With notebook in hand and some music going in the background, I created a few different ideas and did some quick sketches. All-told these took just a few minutes, but really gave me some solid direction.
The reason I like to do a rough design before taking measurements is because measuring without a plan usually gets me nowhere. If I started measuring things right away without an idea in mind, I would probably have to re-measure everything anyway depending on how the design eventually panned-out. Once I do get the general idea down, I then know exactly what needs to be measured and I can do it right the first time.
For this project, I started with a solution for the lamp mount point because I thought that would be the more difficult part. I decided to simply create a small plate that the clip of the lamp could attach to. All I had to do was make sure it had enough clearance to clip-on behind the bed, and that it prints strong enough.
Since I decided on this simple plate design, I though it would be easy to attach that to a very basic Echo Dot holder design. At first I started with sketching a box shape, with a hole for the Dot. I knew this would be an easy & quick design to create within Fusion 360, the 3D CAD software that I use.
After looking at it though, I decided that this method would use way to much plastic. With all the unnecessary space on the design, it would also take a much longer time to print. My solution was to go to a circular design that fit the Dot more closely. From there, I had to add small tabs for the screws to mount it to the headboard. This finished-up all of my needs for the design.
Before I dive in to the design software, I now need to refine my rough sketches. By that I mean, I'm going to add measurements to the sketches so I can more easily model it in to the CAD software.
Sometimes I'll spend time re-drawing my sketch to refine, however for such a simple design in this project I don't see the need to make it too fancy. With a basic sketch and measurements, CAD software makes it easy to translate in to a more finished design as I go.
As determined by my design, the Echo Dot is the core of the overall bracket that I'm creating. I decided to take measurements of that first, and then build around it.
Now, I continue from this base design to add in the lamp mount. I hold the Dot up about where I think the bracket will position it on the back of the bed. Then I measure to make sure the clip for the lamp mount has enough clearance based on the size of the Dot.
Lining-up the lamp for measurements.
In all honesty, I'm not being very precise. For a project like this, where function is the most important thing, I'm just looking to ensure it will work. With just some quick measurements, and holding the dot and lamp in the position I think they will sit, I know that I will have enough clearance for the bracket.
Finally, I added all of these rough measurements to my drawing. Because I'm in the US, I have to convert my inch measurements in to millimeters. For the complete beginners out there, I have to do this conversion because 3D printers in general work on the scale of millimeters, not inches. This will make it easier to design in my CAD software and work with my printer when it comes time to make my design a reality.
With both the initial rough sketch done, and my measurements added and converted to millimeters, I can move on to the next phase of the project!
Create a 3D Model
I am by no means a professional designer. Everything I do is self-taught in my free time. While I don't have any formal skills, I do have a process I follow each and every time I create a new 3D model.
The first step I follow is to create a rough idea of the general shape that I'm looking for. I create the shapes I need using the measurements that I took, and give myself a general idea of what the model will look like in 3D. It's basically the equivalent of my "rough sketch" from my notepad, except in the 3D design software.
The "rough" design. with the basic shapes in place, I can preview potential problems and fix them before I start printing.
The next step of my 3D modeling design process is to figure out how it will rest on the 3D printer. That way I can make edits to the basic shape and ensure it will print. As you get more and more comfortable with 3D printing, you will learn the types of things that printers can do well, and the things they can't.
For example, one thing to watch out for is "overhangs". Most printers can handle a decent overhang angle, however every printer has its limits. For this particular design, a key design aspect has a 90 degree overhang. While no printer could handle this on its own, I know that I can print some extra, removable structure (called supports) to make it work.
Below you can see the model loaded in to my slicer software. the red color is where the overhang is too great for the printer to work. Then, you can see where the software built a support structure. then finally, the entire model with supports ready for print.
My second issue however, is another small overhang where the plug for the Echo Dot will go. I didn't want to print support material here, so I created a triangular shape at an angle that I knew my printer could handle printing those angles without issue.
Now that I'm happy with the overall look and feel of the basic 3D model, I add in my finishing details. Don't get me wrong, I know that if I print this model as-is, it will probably work. I just like to take a few extra minutes to add finishing details. One quick tip for example, is that I find it looks more professional if you finish off sharp edges. The rounded edges, at least to me, makes it feel like a more professional-looking product.
On the left, is the unfinished 3D model.
On the right, the rounded, more "finished" looking detail.
Step 4: 3D Print!
Now that I'm happy with the model in the design software, it's finally time to print! Although I'm at the printing stage, I am definitely not done. Now, a prototype model or two can be printed. From there I can make edits and re-print until i'm happy with the design.
I load the model in to my slicer software and make sure the settings are right. I decided to do this at a .2mm layer height and with some more infill than I normally would use. Since this print has to be functional, I wanted it to be as solid and strong as possible.
The "final" design. As you'll soon learn, I ended up changing this due to mistakes. The same grey model above, now loaded in to Cura, my slicer software of choice.
Then, I pick my filament color. In this case, since the bracket won't be visible once it's in place, the color doesn't matter so much. Because of that, I just grabbed the color I had the most of left over from a previous project. With filament loaded, I send the model off to be printed.
This is the part where 3D printing really comes in handy. One of the best things about this technology is "rapid prototyping". Basically, it's the ability to quickly produce multiple versions of an item with slight differences.
In a practical application like this project, exact measurements are important, and my amateur habits show through. Often times my first print isn't quite right for one reason or another. In this case, I created two prototypes before getting a final design printed for use.
Failure Prototype 1:
The first version of the model I printed started well, but when it was a few hours in I realized I had made two serious mistakes.
First, the space for the echo dot was slightly too small. Even though I measured with a ruler, the measurement wasn't quite good enough. Realistically, I should get a set of calipers to get a better measurement. I kind of expected this would be an issue as it's the most common problem I experience when printing an item that has to fit around something else. if you look closely at the image, you might see where there are some cracks in the print from me trying to force the Dot in place.
The second, larger mistake was that I remembered that the speakers for the Echo Dot are actually around the bottom of the device. My first design completely omitted holes for the speakers, meaning that when I placed the Dot in the holder, it would completely block the sound. Since I wanted this to be a fully working Echo dot, this wouldn't work.
I went back and fixed the model by adding holes all around the base. I didn't change the size though. To fix that, I simply increased the scale of the model in the slicer software. I increased the scale to 102%. Just based on experience, I was pretty sure this value would work. There are definitely better ways to do this (like math), but I'm generally pretty scrappy with fine-tuning like this.
Failure Prototype 2:
The next prototype I printed was looking great. The speaker holes were printing nicely, and looked like they would do the job. About 4 hours in to the print though, I realized I had made another major (and avoidable) mistake.
This prototype didn't include a hole for the power cable! When I went back to add in the holes to the model, I must have somehow reverted it back to an older version of the model. Because of that, the version I edited didn't have a cut-out for the power cable of the Dot anymore. I was in a rush and didn't look at the model closely enough, and wasted a bunch of time.
No holes for the power plug. But, we're getting close!
The need for this prototyping process would be reduced if I took better measurements and planned-ahead more. Each of these prints took 3-4 hours, with the final print taking a full 6 hours. So overall a fair bit of time was wasted. All that said, I really like this part of the process as I see my fine-tuning and changes get printed in real-life, so it's not too frustrating for me personally.
With that last piece of editing done, I was able to finally get the final print done.
The Final Print & Assembly
Finally, after two revisions, I was able to successfully print the third and final design that worked! All of the holes were in the right spot, and the print quality was good so the model was strong.
Now that I've got a good print, It's time to put it all together. For this project, I luckily had the non-printable pieces I needed at home. I dug-in to my collection of random hardware to find screws for mounting the bracket, and I also found some double-sided tape to attach the Echo Dot.
First, I taped the dot in place on the bracket using the double-sided tape. Making sure there was clearance for the power cable.
Next, I test-fitted everything. I clipped the lamp to the tab, and held it in place behind the bed to make sure there was clearance. I double-checked the screws and made sure they stuck through the mounting holes enough to reach the wood.
Making sure the lamp clip is secure.Making sure it all has clearance.
Finally, the moment of truth. I simply used a hand screwdriver to mount the whole bracket to the back of the headboard. I plugged everything in and now I have a smart bed!
If focused, this project could have easily been done within a day from start to finish. I have a couple additional adjustments I'd like to make for a future version, but overall I'm pretty happy with the way this turned out. I use it almost every day, and I take good pride in knowing this is a problem I solved 100% on my own!
To wrap this entire process up simply, I use the following steps every time I create an original 3D design for practical use:
Identify the Problem: Break the problem down in to a clear picture of what needs to be solved.
Design on Paper: Start sketching ideas. Get a rough idea of what the model will look like. Once you've got an idea of how it will look, add measurements to work with.
Create a 3D Model: I take the drawing and begin to build it in to the modeling software I'm most comfortable with. I start with basic shapes to match my drawing, and then I refine it slowly from there.
3D Print the Object: You may only need one print if careful measurements were taken. That said, if you need to do some refinement, rapid prototyping is a strength of 3D printing. Different design changes can make sure the project ends up perfect.
Hopefully this peek at my design process gave you some ideas on how to do this for yourself. If it can even help inspire one person to give it a try and get the same rewarding feeling I get when I design something that works, it's worth it!