Making your own smartphone and tablet accessories with a 3D Printer opens you up to a whole new world of possibilities.
It's late, something like 2 a.m., and everyone in the house has almost simultaneously discovered the need for tacos. I hop into the passenger seat, throw my phone into the cupholder, and off we go. On the way back from this random taco run, a deer wanders out into the road and my friend slams on his brakes. Everyone's fine, but my phone has flown out of the cupholder and is now sliding around on the floor of the car just out of reach. Shortly after recovering the phone, I decide that an actual mount for my phone needs to happen. Rather than head to my usual retail site, I went to Thingiverse and took a quick look at what other folks have made already that fits this need. I see something that interests me, send the file to the 3D Printer in my office, and when I wake up the next morning my new car dock is ready to be used.
This completely true story got me thinking about all of the possibilities that open up when you decide to just print your own accessories. While there are some serious caveats to what is actually possible here, the experience is impressive all the same.
One of the coolest things about 3D printing right now are the communities that have formed around sharing designs. Thingiverse user JinxTheRabbit, who is responsible for the dock you see above, is one of thousands who publish new designs for everything imaginable every day. This design is especially brilliant, as the back of it is built so you can snake a microUSB up into the bottom of the dock and power your Nexus 5. The sides are snug enough that the phone doesn't move around at all when docked, and it just plain looks nice when sitting in the cupholder.
Between Thingiverse and YouMagine, another community of 3D design content, I found there was rarely a point where I couldn't just search for something that already existed to print. This is the best way to start, as it gives you a better idea of what your printer is capable of and how it will behave when you start creating your own designs. There's also a healthy sub-community that focused on "remixing" existing projects, which lends itself nicely to things like accessories for phones and tablets.
YouMagine user MCVet is responsible for the OnePlus One speaker dock you see here, which does a fantastic job redirecting the audio from the phone while making the phone easy to dock and remove without a lot of work. Like the car dock, this was a file I could download to my phone and the 3D Printer knew exactly what to do. The design consumes maybe $1 in materials and power, and took around 12 hours to print. When you factor in the cost of the $2,500 printer it's not like you're saving money by making these accessories for yourself, but it's also not hard to see where personalizing one of these designs worth doing.
Docks are fairly simple, and cool to have. Cases are another matter altogether, largely because you have to be a lot more careful with the kind of material you use. Most 3D Prints are done with rigid materials, which means you get rigid prints that are prone to breakage when thin and stylish. You'll also find that very few consumer-grade 3D printers can guarantee a smooth print on every angle, which means the case you've printed with rigid materials has a much higher chance to scratch up your phone. There are a couple of printers out there that are designed to work with flexible filament, which means you can print objects that have a little flex and are generally softer, but we've not been able to test that just yet.
Printing accessories for yourself can be an incredible experience, but it can also be deeply frustrating. Stray fibers in the print can accidentally obfuscate the microUSB port or partially block a speaker hole, and print jobs can quickly go from 14 to 15 hours to several days if conditions aren't perfect. Like most things in the 3D Printing world right now, it's incredibly cool when everything is perfect, and it's really not hard to imagine a world where printing your accessories is totally normal behavior for everyone.