Is 3D printing the future of mobile accessories?

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With so many mobile devices on offer, it’s no wonder we don’t have as many accessories as we’d like. It must be really difficult for those accessory manufacturers to keep up! With new devices coming out all the time, and our increasing desire for accessories, is 3D printing the answer?

There may be a time when 3D printing is a very mainstream thing, and that time may be coming very soon. We’ve already seen a 3D printed phone stand/charger, but are there other opportunities out there? We ponder the possibilities, as well as get some feedback from our friends at Cruzerlite.

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What is 3D printing?

The easiest way I can describe 3D printing is this: it’s the opposite of machining. With machining, you take a block of something and slowly take away material until you get the desired final product. With 3D printing, you start with nothing and slowly add product until you get the result you’re looking for.

Think of 3D printing like laying down sheets of paper, all cut out to a specific shape. Individually, they mean almost nothing, but once assembled properly, they give a three dimensional shape. A 3D printer acts the same way: it prints layers of materials until the design is complete. To be fair, we’re only discussing what’s called Fused Deposit Modelling, as it would be the method of 3D printing best used for mobile device accessories. There are many other types, but those often use materials we can’t conceive for a wide variety of accessories.

What can it do?

The beauty of 3D printing is that it’s capable of just about anything. Sure, it can’t make complex machinery, but it can make the parts for one! If we take the recent news about someone 3D printing a gun, that gives us a better idea of what it can do. A gun has moving parts, even if they are simple in form. While the printer can’t make a gun in its entirety, it can make the parts to be assembled.

What are the boundaries?

Like anything else, 3D printing won’t do everything. It has some quirks like only printing certain materials, but those really only serve as parameters. If we want something, we’re going to find a way to make it work. We’ve seen a lot of cool 3D printed stuff ranging from scissors to sandals, so while you work inside some parameters, your imagination is the only limitation.

Materials

If we’re discussing mobile accessories, many of the ones we enjoy today use multiple materials. Some have a microfiber lining and a leather esque outer. Neither of those is 3D printable, so we’d never be able to reproduce it. Even the accessories that use a similar type of material throughout, like a polyurethane, often have different finishes on them. Maybe the back is textured, while the sides are smooth. Depending on the method of producing such finish or feel, we may not be able to reproduce that. A 3D printer can’t produce multiple materials for one object, so we’d have to find the correct single material to use for the project.

Expertise

It all sounds simple enough, but we’re talking about design. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know the first thing about design. Sure, I could probably sit down with a computer design program and make a pretty kick-ass case for my device, but would it really work well? I have my own sense of style, but I don’t know about function. If we’re designing something as simple as a stand, we’d need to have a reasonable knowledge of physics so as not to have the device fall right out. A case may look cool, but would you be able to get your device in and out? Having a cute design is one thing, but function is much more important.

These printers operate on a CAD software system, more or less. You’d have to know a whole lot about computer-aided drafting to make really good use of it. Most of us don’t have that knowledge, or the patience and time to learn. It’s a pretty big stretch to have mobile device accessories available at any time.

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Practical uses

This all has to have some purpose, right? It’s too cool not to! We can print up some accessories any time we want with 3D printing. It has to work out! They 3D-printed James Bond’s car, after all. But if we can’t do it, how will it get done? Is it even worth dreaming about? It is, and it may be a reality sooner than you think.

In store

Remember that report a while back that Staples was getting 3D printers in each store? Well, think of a situation in which you could simply walk into your local Staples and get an accessory made for you as you shop. Go in, pick out a case shape, and tell them what kind of design you want. It would take care of the one thing most of us don’t know about, which is function. Wait for it to be printed, or come back to pick it up, and you’ve got your case. In this sense, getting a case would be a lot like getting a tattoo. You go in, pick out a case, and maybe one of their designs. If you have your own idea, they’ll work with you to make it happen. The real difference? A case hurts a lot less and isn’t as permanent.

The thing that will determine if this works or not is device specs. If Staples, as a company, could reasonably get the dimensions and design of the device, they could design cases. If they don’t have those specs, then they have nowhere to start design. Forget screen size and processor speed, they’ll need dimensions and camera placement.

Online

Even though I don’t have a solid idea about CAD, or functional design… someone out there does. Pair some bright people with 3D printers and watch what happens. Much like the custom Android toys we see now and again, the same could happen with custom cases. New design, new materials, even new functionality could begin to emerge with some willing, creative people driving the ship. There is definitely a market for custom Android stuff, so look for people willing to make whatever you like to pop up when 3D printing catches on.

New business

Some office space, a few 3D printers, and a website. Then establish a presence on eBay or Amazon, and get working on being social on Google+. If you and a few others have some design knowledge, print this article and go to your bank, because I just gave you a business model. If you look at the craze Dead Zebra created with Android toys, you’ll see that a niche like this is begging for a market. If you told people they could take your very basic accessory, implement their own design (via a template on your website would be a wise choice, by the way), and get that in a relatively short time, you’d have them knocking down your eDoor! Also, the posts bragging about their new device would serve as excellent word-of-mouth exposure.

If you decide to take my business idea, feel free. It’s open source, after all. The only thing I ask is some stock options when you make it big. That’s fair, right? Even if you do end up striking it rich, it’ll be a long, hard road. Joel Michael, owner of Cruzerlite, notes that “3D printing is pretty slow, so it would take a lot of machines and staff working round the clock to churn out a large volume of cases.” There’s no quick buck to make with 3D printing yet.

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The future

Is 3D printing the wave of the future? I turned to Michael for his take:

“Once the technology catches up, it will be interesting to see what people can do. Right now, 3D printing is slow, and not very cost effective. It takes quite a while to create one object, so the time investment is significant. I’m sure it will happen on a larger scale eventually, but right now it would be tough to actually do it on a large scale.”

With growing interest, and a few bright people, anything can be done. While it does take some time to create an object via 3D printing, it takes some pioneers to drive the craft. The more people show interest, the more adaptation it will have. Going back to the charger stand that was created via 3D printing, we can see the interest it gained. If the person who created that also listed them as available for purchase, I’m sure there would be quite a few orders. Enough to sustain a business? Probably not, but many great things start small.

Can I do it?

Sure you can! 3D printers are still pretty expensive though, with a good model starting around $1,700. As for the materials, do a little homework before you buy a mass amount of any. There are some wonderful materials out there that will suit your needs, but no one material is good for all tasks. Thermoplastics seem to be a consensus choice, but other materials such as the Objet Tango line could prove useful as well.

You’ll also have to have a little patience to take on 3D printing. Even if you’re knowledgeable regarding design or CAD, you won’t hit the ground running. It will take a little time to get things right, so just be prepared for that. Whether you’re doing it for fun at home, or trying to establish a business with 3D printing, it will be a process.

Conclusion

In an Android world where so many devices have different shapes, sizes, specs and function… it’s no wonder we simply don’t have the plethora of accessories our iPhone counterparts enjoy. The reason for all this variety is the open source nature of Android. While that may seem like a bit of a downer, specifically in regard to accessories, it isn’t. If an open source problem exists, an open source solution does as well. The advent of 3D printing will take care of many accessory issues we have with Android, and once it catches a bit more fire it will take hold. The cost needs to come down a bit, which is a major hurdle right now, but it will. Somehow, demand always finds its way to supply.

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