You don’t have to be a designer to make the most of your 3D printer. There are thousands upon thousands of free things you can download and print — and some of them are pretty useful.
I belong and contribute to a site called Thingiverse. It allows users to upload 3D models and download other’s designs for free. There are other places to find free designs online, such as YouMagine, but I believe Thingiverse is the largest, with respect to the number of both members and designs uploaded. They also allow you the ability to modify designs if the creator built the model in a language called openSCAD.
The discussion of what 3D printer to buy, what materials to use, and how to use and maintain it are beyond the scope of this post. What I wanted to show was some of the most useful things I’ve printed.
Let’s start up with a simple 3D printed object: a sun/safety glasses holder for your vehicle visor.
I downloaded and printed several different designs until I found this one. Each previous design I tried either didn’t stay on the visor very well or the sunglasses would fall out while I was driving. I didn’t like this design at first either, because it would slip off the visor when I tried removing the sunglasses, even though it held the sunglasses well. Much like the iPhone 4, I discovered that I was using it wrong.
To use it correctly, you push down on the lever with your thumb to release the sunglasses, then you hold the clip in place with your thumb while you grab the sunglasses with your fingers.
I’ve had this clip in my truck for many months and it has kept my sunglasses securely all that time. I like the simplicity of the design and the fact that it prints very quickly.
USB Cable Reel
I found this cable reel many months ago and it’s been one of the most useful cord organizers that I’ve printed. It consists of three pieces: the outer shell and a 2-part spool created by screwing two end caps together.
Assembly is easy; you simply slip the cord through the two holes in the outer shell, and then screw the two end caps together inside the shell to form the spool. The slot in one end cap captures the cord in the middle of the spool.
Once assembled, you twist the spool while holding the outer shell stationary. The cord winds up inside the wrapper for storage. When you need the cord you pull on both ends and only unspool what you need.
One of the cool things about 3D printing is that you can modify your prints, and if you break it, you can always print another one. I couldn’t slip the transformer of this Black & Decker charger through the outer shell, so I just cut some slots that allowed me to slip the cord into the shell. It made dealing with this charger cord much easier.
Portable Hard Drive or Power Bank Cable Mount
As I mentioned, Thingiverse isn’t the only place to find free 3D models. I found this portable hard drive cable holder on YouMagine. I’m not using it on a portable hard drive though, I am using it on something similar, a USB power bank.
It is a series of “fingers” that hold the USB cable. To attach it to the power source or hard drive, you simply use a rubber band looped around the first and last finger.
The first time I printed this cable mount I used PLA, which is a common plastic used in 3D printing, but I found that the fingers were too stiff, and they wouldn’t bend enough to allow the cable to pass between them. So I tried printing it with flexible filament and it worked well — the fingers have some give and I can easily remove and replace the cable.
I’ve used this power bank with this cable holder at many different media events, and the cable holder has held up well and kept the USB cord tangle free in my pocket.
Pegboard Glasses Holder
If you search the Thingiverse website, you’ll find a ton of pegboard accessories — some of them robust and useful, others not so sturdy. One of the most unique and useful pegboard accessories I’ve found is a glasses holder.
This glasses holder is made for 1/4″ pegboard. It has stubby legs that fit firmly into the pegboard. I’ve found that 3D printed accessories made for 1/8″ pegboard just don’t have tough-enough pins or legs and they tend to snap off — one of the disadvantages of plastic over metal.
The holder is designed to hold glasses by the nose pads, and while it looks like the glasses are just balanced on the holder, it actually holds them quite well. Plus it also makes a pretty handy holder for earmuffs and other hearing protection.
I find these customizable magnetic boxes handy. All you need are a few rare-earth magnets and they’ll stick to most metal surfaces (unless you have a stainless steel fridge).
When you open the page for this thing you’ll find a link that says “open in customizer.” For this to work you’ll need to sign into Thingiverse. Once you’re there you’ll see a screen like the one below that allows you to change all the different parameters.
Most of the parameters are pretty self-explanatory and you can see the changes to the model you’ve made in real-time on the right. Once you are done, you click the “Create Thing” button in the upper right. It usually takes a few minutes and you’ll be notified that you can download your customized box file.
I really like these drawer organizing bins, and they are one of the designs that you can customize to fit your needs. For example, I have three different sized boxes, shown above. Besides the square ones, the ones in the top of the toolbox are longer than the ones in the drawers because the drawers are not as deep as the top. That’s the beauty of printing your own boxes, you can use all the space effectively.
Unfortunately, modifying these boxes is a little more advanced, as the author doesn’t have the customizer turned on. Rather, you have to download and install openSCAD and then download the boxes’ .scad file to modify the model. It really isn’t that complex, I can show you below.
Most models have a bunch of variables that you can modify in the beginning of the file. In this case, the important variables are length, width, and height. Once you change the variables to the size you require, you simply click the render button (the cube with the hourglass), then click the STL button next to it to save the file to a format you can load into your printer.
Finally, I wanted to show you these M18 battery covers I found that I repurposed into hangers for the batteries. Sometimes you don’t find exactly what you need and you might not have the skills to model something that will work.
Here, I’ve repurposed a few holes by enlarging them and drilling my own. Then I counter-sunk them so the battery could still slide into the the cover.
3D prints are usually machinable, if you print them with enough infill. I printed this particular model with 50% infill. A lower infill is done to decrease printing time and to reduce the amount of filament used. Inside the counter-sinks, you can see that the internal structure has voids.
Talking about modeling skills, I downloaded and printed several battery covers until I found one that worked well. When I find really good models I will usually look at other things the designer has uploaded. This particular user — Simhopp — has models for other battery brands that I’ve printed, and they all work as well as the Milwaukee design.
Great article, Benjamin! I have recently started 3D printing, and have found Thingverse very interesting and useful.
If you did not know, Fusion 360, a CAD program used by many companies, is free to hobbyists and companies with low revenues. That is what I am learning to design my own things in. Many parts on Thingverse include files that are compatible with this program.
Out of curiosity, what printer(s) do you use? What slicer? (Me – Monoprice Ultimate from Prime Day and Cura.)
Thanks again for the article.
This is my current printer. I paid about half of the Ali listing price when it was on Amazon. It is a Prusa clone. I chose it because of the extruded aluminum frame, I’ve had to modify it quite a bit, but I really like building things from kits…you get to know the hardware much more intimately. I’ve been using Repitier with Cura, but I’m looking at Octoprint right now.
I use Fusion 360 when I need more complex designs, but I like to use openSCAD when I can. Previously I used TinkerCad more, but as I got better with openSCAD I stopped.
Maybe it’s time for me to invest in a 3D printer…
Wow Ben. Cool stuff. I really like the magnetic bins and the battery clips. I can imagine a nice li-ion to ni-cad adpter for my old Bosch 18v cordless drill using one of those designs. Thanks for sharing.
The inverse of the Milwaukee battery cover is also awesome, make a fake battery top mounting plate. You can use it to hang your tools by the battery connector, and there are variants that are larger for the larger tools like circular saws or sawzalls.
I have a battery adapter I printed from simhopp and it works perfect. it allows me to use my current batteries with a cheaper and more diverse ryobi tools so I did not have to re-invest in a new platform. For the weird tools that will only occasionally see use I can use ryobi, while for tools I use more often I can use my upper teir brand without having to have 2-different batteries. that adapter alone saved me enough money to justify the cost of a small kit printer in my opinion.
Battery adapters are one of the few things I would want a 3D printer for.
Guns Ben. Guns.
The battery holder is such a great idea. Protect the terminals and have a “home” for the batteries when you’re not using them, all while utilizing the often-overlooked “bottom” of the shelf.
Wow, Benjamen. This looks very useful, and rather fun, too. Once one gets past the cost of the printer, how affordable is this for the average person? For example, for the storage bins shown in the first picture, how much filament is required to produce one? What is an average price one should expect to pay for for filament?
My rough number is $20-$30 per kg for PLA or PETG; at under $20, I wouldn’t trust the quality, and >$30 it needs to be special.
Typically, slicing programs such as Cura or Slic3r report in meters of filament, so you need to convert from kg to meters (for example, it’s about 330m of 1.75mm PLA per kg). How much you does depend on your settings, such as infill percentage and any supports.
If it’s going to get warm (e.g. be in the sun, especially in a clear lidded box), look at alternatives to PLA, which most definitely warps when it gets hot.
Anyway, most likely the boxes will be around a couple dollars. You can download the models, and run slice them for free, no 3D printer required, using Cura, Slic3r, etc, if you want to be more exact.
I used to like the Inland filament from Microcenter, which you could get for $15 for a 1kg spool, but they changed suppliers. Now the colors are off.
Inland seems to be an exception; it’s supposedly rebranded eSun, which has a good reputation (I’ve been happy with eSun PETG). But maybe eSun had a hiccup or Inland changed suppliers as you said.
I’ve looked at Shaxon (which Fry’s sells, along with eSun and others) and the reviews are horrible
Before I pull the trigger on a 3-d printer myself, I was thinking of trying one of the 3-d printer services to have them print some sample items for me to see if I like the quality. Has anyone tried those services? Are any of the items above a good candidate to use as a test?
I’ve been meaning to try a service for a few items. Every once and a while an idea pops into my head for an item, but I never remember long enough to actually model it. i got a quote for something silly and small and it was about $3.50 if I picked it up. I’m fortunate to live in an area with a number of small shops. My school had a number of nice ones in the tech lab but the teacher was adamant that they were for student use only.
There’s a ton of 3d printing services online for those who aren’t ready to commit to the cost, complexity, and size of a 3d printer. If you live in or near a city chances are good that you could also find a maker space with many 3d printers you could use in exchange for some money.
Mr. Ben, you forgot the packout insert bins!
( if I were not stuck on how impractical the 20” tote is, and were not tied up with a dozen things – I really want to have a chat with Milwaukee too – I’d have ordered some of your handy packout bins already … )
That’s another post.
so how much did the 3d printer cost to start with – how much does the filiment cost and did you ever work out a cost for one of these objects?
I keep thinking about getting one but never do. that battery holder idea is one I would seriously consider.
Base costs: $200 or so for the kit. $15 to $20 for a spool of filament.
If you are looking into it as an investment, it’s probably not worth it. All the time spent building the kit, tweaking the printer, tweaking all the parameters, failed prints, etc is hard to quantify.
For me it’s the satisfaction of finding something cool and having it in your hands in a few hours, or imagining something, modeling it, and printing it in a matter of a few hours. So no I really haven’t tried to price out what a print costs, and I’m not really interested in doing so.
You can buy more expensive printers in the $800+ range, that take much of the tweaking time and failed prints away, but it’s still not an exact science, but somebody using a printer like that can maybe give a better estimate of part cost.
I’m more interested in the setup like you describe as I also like to tinker. But it’s hard to justify getting into. one of my co-workers has a printer but I forget the flavor. SO I’ll probably just tinker with his.
One thing I keep having to remind him is that whatever is printed can be cut and milled with normal woodwork equipment too. fill is an important part of the equation like you said earlier though.
Thanks, Ben. Great ideas to add to my list.
We (High School Robotics Team) uses Onshape for modeling. It is free for hobbyists if you are ok with the models being publicly available.
As far as using a printer (instead of buying), look locally. Portland Public library will print models for you at a reasonable cost. Also, look for some “maker space” near you.
Ordered my 3D printer kit … looking forward to testing it out with a few of Ben’s recommendations and his packout inserts 🙂