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  • Charlie Kocur

What do people use 3D printers for?

Introduction

Modern 3D printers are getting more and more affordable all the time. Despite the lower cost and ease of use though, it's still not super common for the average person to have a 3D printer at home.

A question I get most often when people find out that I own a 3D printer is, "What do you do with it?".


My short answer is that I mostly use it as a fun hobby, but it occasionally has some practical uses as well. In terms of the practical side I use 3D printing to help fix things, to get me organized, and to nicely finish small electronics projects. On the hobby side I use it as a creative outlet to learn 3D modeling and design, for creating unique gifts, and to create fun things for around the house.


This post is an excellent starting point for new 3D printing enthusiasts. It will cover some of the main uses I have for my 3D printer to give an idea of how people use 3D printers in their home in the real world.

Besides my personal reasons, there are lots of uses, both practical and fun, to own a 3D printer. The technology is to the point where a printer can be more than something that just creates small desktop trinkets.

With the right printer, material, and design; 3D printers can actually be just as useful as any other tool in the garage. Read on to find out more about the uses of 3D printers.


 

What can you do with 3D printers and why buy one?

There are plenty of great reasons to pick up a 3D printer for a home workshop. Not only are they very affordable, but they also are easier to use than ever.

There are a few key reasons I suggest purchasing a 3D printer.

  1. To create practical 3D prints for helping around the house or with projects.

  2. To encourage ongoing learning of new skills.

  3. To have fun!

Read on to find out more about each of these along with examples of each.


Part 1: Use a 3D printer to make practical prints.






Creating 3D prints for practical use took me a while, but not because it's a difficult thing to do. Mostly, it was because I wasn't even thinking of my 3D printer as more than a fun tech-toy.

As with most people, I began my 3D printing journey by printing small desktop trinkets. Things like replicas of video game props and cool looking pencil holders.


The "a-ha" moment really hit me when I was working to organize my home office. I needed a place to set my gaming controller when I wasn't using it, so I turned to 3D printing for a solve.

After searching a bit, I came across a simple model that got the job done. The cool thing about this design was it could be stacked! So I chained a few together.


Now my controllers that would usually end up scattered across my desk have a home!



It was simple, but realizing I could 3D print something that was actually useful, something in my brain clicked. Once I started thinking of my 3D printer as a tool, a whole new world opened up. Here are a few examples of how 3D printing can be practical in the home.


Get organized with 3D prints.

When it comes to being practical, I'd say the number one thing I use my printer for is to help me get organized. It's not something I expected, but over time it just kind of naturally came together.


3D printing allows the possibility of truly custom storage solutions. Since it's easy to prototype and re-print something, you can edit and customize as much or as little as you want! There are plenty of great designs out there on sites like MyMiniFactory if you search for organization. Everything from simple pen/pencil holders, to battery organizers, to small parts trays.


There's another reason I think looking at organizational helpers are great for the beginner 3D printer. Organizational tools were also a great introduction for learning to design 3D models myself. They contain basic shapes and are usually fairly small.




One of the first practical things I designed myself was a desktop organizer. It holds three notebooks upright, has room for pens or small tools, a watch stand, and a tray for small things like paperclips. I was able to create it all within Tinkercad for free online within a day!


3D print small part replacements.

This is something that I've grown to love. I've only had an opportunity to use it a couple of times however the results were great each time.

Sometimes, a small piece of plastic around the house will break. Maybe it's a bracket to hold something in place or in my case, a unique little clip-on mount for dishwasher drawer wheels.

This is the small bracket I created to replace an existing one in my CAD software, Fusion 360. I made some improvements to the old design to add strength where I thought it was needed.

Here is the final printed design in-use on my dishwasher!


One day when pulling out the dishwasher drawer, the wheel popped right off! I took a look and it turned out that the small bracket holding it on had snapped. It was simply a poor design with a clear weak spot that over years had simply worn out.

Because I have an older dishwasher, it can be difficult to find spare parts. Plus, we were planning to replace the whole dishwasher in under a year anyway. I figured if I could use 3D printing to help it limp along for a while longer, then that's great!

So I immediately took to my Fusion 360 CAD software and designed a replacement. Since the part was small, it only took about 30 minutes to print from start to finish. I could print a piece, test it in the real world, and then adjust the design as necessary.

After a few tests printing and putting the new bracket in place I settled on a design. Once put in place, it worked great! This is one of the few moments where I was able to impress my wife with my 3D printer.

This example shows what I think makes 3D printers great. The ability to make prototypes fast. You can try something, test it, and if it doesn't work you can adjust and try again very quickly.

Also, I love the ability to accurately recreate parts as needed. This small print lasted several months in the harsh environment of our dishwasher before I had to print another one.

Having a final working design meant that all I had to do was hit "print" and 30 min. later I had a working replacement piece. Much better than going to the store!


Finish electronics projects.

3D printers are a great resource for electronics enthusiasts. Having a printer at home means it's relatively quick to create nice-looking custom cases for small electronics projects, or even small parts to work along with motors.


3D printing actually inspired me to start learning some basic electronics skills. I am very much a beginner at electronics however with 3D printing I can still make well-finished projects. Since I'm a beginner sometimes these projects look better than they work!


3D print cases for electronics projects.

Since I've just started with electronics I only have one project I'm proud of which is a simple LED lighting project. I found an existing Arduino board model and modified it so it could also hold some of the wiring. Not only does it look nicer, but it keeps everything safe and in place.


There are hundreds of existing 3D model files for cases. You can easily find cases compatible with Raspberry Pi's or Arduino boards. If you can't find something that works for your project, it's also easy to modify one of these existing files or create your own from scratch.


For those looking to do something totally custom, there are lots of free and easy tools out there. This allows anyone to begin creating original designs immediately.


Free simple online tools like Tinkercad.com allow anyone to drag & drop shapes. For those looking to get in to more detail, Fusion360 is a free (for hobbyists) downloadable CAD software that is relatively quick to learn if you're willing to put in a little time.


3D print custom small parts for electronics projects.

There is more to electronics than making a pretty case. Those who work in robotics or any type of mechanical projects will know how valuable it can be to make use-specific parts quickly. 3D printing allows for relatively easy creation and testing of customized parts.


Fusion 360 is a fantastic, completely free software that I use for much of my 3D designing. One of the coolest features I think, is the ability to create gears.


It's a simple built-in interface that lets you choose the size and number of teeth. In fact, I used this gears tool to help me make a small-scale wind power generator concept. These gears worked perfectly!


At the base of the Red Bull can "sail", you can see a gear. This met with a smaller gear to help increase the speed going in to the electric motor to try and generate more power.


Advanced users can even create a full model within Fusion 360 and animate it to show how all the parts will move!


3D printing parts is more than just gears. I have seen all kinds of helpful gadgets made with 3D printing. People have 3D printed frames for drones, custom hardware mounting brackets, small washers, and I've even seen a few fully 3D printed home-made keyboards!


When it comes to small parts, the options seem almost limitless with 3D printing!


 

Part 2: Use a 3D printer to learn new skills

My original goal when I purchased a 3D printer was to simply print cool 3D models created by others. As I learned more about how 3D printing works and how many tools and resources are available online for free, that plan changed.


I started to teach myself basic 3D modeling skills. Starting out with simple designs like putting basic shapes together to create something new. Over time I learned small additional skills here and there and eventually got to the point where I could make something useful!


The rest of this section will cover more detail of a few new skills I've learned that were all thanks to having a 3D printer in my home.


Improve design skills.

As mentioned, I got pretty bored with printing other people's 3D models, so I started to learn about creating my own. There were lots of failures and just plain ugly designs. Over time though, I learned to make what I think are pretty cool things!


I've even entered a couple of design competitions. I haven't placed in any of them unfortunately, but pushing myself to enter helped me improve and learn new design skills.


3D printing comes with its own unique set of design challenges. Learning how to approach each of these not only helped me with my printing, but it also taught me how to design for 3D prints.

  • Minimal Material Use:

  • Because 3D printing takes so long, creating designs that are simple and use little material helps save a lot of time. Sometimes this influences the whole design overall and creates a better looking, simple item.

Strength:

  • 3D prints are relatively weak compared to what people are used to when it comes to plastic. There are ways however to design and help make prints stronger. By working within the printer and material limitations, it's possible to design some surprisingly effective items!

Overhangs:

  • This is something that a complete beginner might not be aware of, but pretty much all consumer-grade 3D printers have challenges with steep angles. These are referred to as "overhangs". I did a full write-up including overhangs here if you'd like more info. It's a major consideration when designing a 3D printable item, and sometimes makes me have to think creatively!


While I'm not a designer by any means, 3D printing has made me look at things in a new light. I can now do some basic design work and I now really appreciate well designed items when I see them!


Learn some engineering.

There is more to creating a 3D design than just making it look decent. When creating something that has a purpose, you also have to consider some basic engineering so what you build doesn't completely fail.

Both design and engineering overlap heavily when it comes to 3D prints. Making something not only look great, but also be functional is an at that takes a long time to develop.


The materials used are a big limitation for 3D printers. While great for some small things, they don't come anywhere near the strength of an industrially produced, injection-molded plastic part.


If you have an understanding of how 3D printers work, some of these limitations can be overcome. Different techniques and even built-in software features can take something that would normally be flimsy and

Take for instance, "infill". In short, to add more strength to a 3D print, infill can be added to any 3D printable model. Knowing when and how to use this is extremely important and can be unique to each design.


Being aware of how the print will be used once it is completed informs the type of infill to be used (or even if any infill should be used at all!). Infill is a very basic example, but to me shows that a user has to turn on their "engineering brain" to solve problems and prepare items properly.


Get creative.

3D printing has been one of the most rewarding hobbies I've ever had. To me, it is a creative outlet. It's a fun way for someone like me, who doesn't have any ability to draw or do art, to be creative.


Not only do creative projects help me get ideas out, doing them also taught me new skills.


Whether it was with the materials used, a new printing technique, or learning a new CAD software skill; each of the following projects helped me develop more competence in 3D printing and design.


Sculptures

This was a great mix of creativity and learning new skills. I started making small sculptures to better teach myself Fusion360. In the end I got some pretty cool desktop art out of it!


To me, there is no better way to learn something than by getting hands-on. By picking a very specific skill, and then exploring that within the software, it teaches you how to use the tools to accomplish something.


Having a goal of creating something abstract removed frustrations I might have trying to design something useful. I was able to really focus on the skill itself instead of a specific end result.


Sea Anemone Sculpture

Here is an example of what I mean. What started out as a focus on learning to use the 'circular pattern' tools within Fusion360, ended up as one of my favorite things I've ever created.



My "focus" goal led me to the creation of the basic sea anemone shape. From there, I've worked it in to additional projects such as a stand for an Echo Dot and a Dungeons & Dragons dice tower!


 

Part 3: Use a 3D printer to have fun!

To me, the most important part of having a 3D printer at home is simply that it's fun! While 3D prints can be useful, I wouldn't suggest picking up a 3D printer expecting it to solve all of your problems.


I believe that the simple feeling of "woah, that's cool!" should be at the center of a hobbyist's decision to pick up a printer.


If you are interested in the technology, like to make things, or just want a unique creative outlet; a 3D printer may be right for you.


Arts & Crafts

Being able to create almost any shape at-will can be really helpful for home craft projects. 3D printers are great for this because the parts are low-cost and can be customized easily.


A project that my wife had for me was to print custom text to use in photos of our newborn. We laid our daughter on a blanket, and set words showing how many months old she was.


Having the files on-hand made it easy to make adjustments for each month, and we could use custom colors for each one. This allowed us to do truly one-of-a-kind versions of the photos that we had seen others do.


As a new father, the idea of being able to one day bring my daughter in to the hobby is exciting. I am already on the lookout for fun projects to do with her and setting them aside.


Decorations

Decor can take many forms. There are some extremely awesome examples of 3D printing used in professional applications, but you don't have to be an expert to make something cool!


Many 3D model repositories have huge collections of cool things to print. MyMiniFactory.com is one of my favorite places to browse for this type of item. They show different categories, and highlight really cool or popular designs that can be downloaded.


Decorative Planters

To this day one of my favorite simple 3D printed decor items are planters. They can be small so don't take long to print, and can be a unique gift as well (I recommend pre-installing a plant for maximum effect!).

There are tons of planter designs, but they are also extremely easy to create yourself!

Personalized & Unique Gifts

Yes, these can be a little tacky, but still lots of fun! I've never had someone think a small, 3D printed gift wasn't cool.


Here are a few ideas that I've done that were received well by others. Generally I included these as small gifts along with other things. That added personal touch makes a difference.


Custom Ornaments

At my day job as a manager, I have a tight budget. I try to do the best I can to make my employees feel special during the holidays. As much as I'd like to give everyone an expensive gift, I'm just not able to.


I am able to put some extra effort in to personalize each gift and make it special. With a little extra time, I was able to include unique, 3D printed Christmas ornaments for each of my employees and attach it as a sort of gift tag to their main gift.


There are plenty of snowflake, stars, and small tree designs out there online. So I went and found a uniquely styled snowflake for each person on my team.


Using the right filament made a difference too. I found an excellent transparent blue that made the snowflakes look amazing!


Build-it Yourself Toys

If you've got someone in your life who likes to tinker, there are lots of 3D printable options for them. One of my favorites are these geared fidget items.


There are many shapes and styles out there, but in general they all work the same way. A shape like a box, a heart, or even a skull can be rotated and becomes a mess of a shape. As you rotate further though, it all comes back around to settle in to place. It's oddly satisfying to play with.


Personally, I like to give these as unassembled pieces (I mark which piece goes where with a sharpie before gifting). The person I give it to can put it together themselves and then watch the magic happen!


The thought that counts.

3D printed items can be a good add-on for any gift giving season. With a little effort, it's easy to add a person's name or a special day of the year to an existing 3D model.


While 3D printing won't replace a thoughtful gift, the ability to personalize and customize to the person you're giving it to is a big plus! It adds a special touch and I can almost guarantee they will be talking about it for weeks to come!


 

Overall, 3D Printers are Fun & Practical

There are many uses for 3D printers and I wanted to share my personal favorites in the hopes that people realize what a cool tool 3D printers can be. 3D printers are not hard to use, technical tools that only engineers should pick up. In fact, anyone can find a good use for a 3D printer in the home with a little creativity.

3D printing technology has advanced to the point where printers are easy to use by almost anyone. It's my goal with this website to encourage people to pick up a 3D printer for their own home. I have had so much fun with this hobby that I would love to share it with others.

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