Jul 10

3D Printing for Fun (but not Profit)

Assembly 2-063014

3D model of the finished flashdrive

I’ve used 3D printing services in my day-job occasionally for almost 20 years.  Back then, we called it SLA (stereo-lithography) or SLS (selective laser sintering), and we used it as a relatively cheap way to test the form and fit of plastic parts before we committed to an injection-molding tool. The SLA parts might cost a few hundred dollars each, but it was well worth it compared to the $10,000+ we might spend on the mold. It made sense for engineering, but the process was too expensive for a hobbyist to play around with. And every year, in the engineering trade magazines, we would hear that SLA was poised to take off and go mainstream. Soon every company would have their own printers for the engineers to play with. For the most part that never happened.

Then, a few years ago, prices for entry-level equipment began to come down, and it started being called “3D Printing.” And again, it was poised to take off, and everyone was going to have one. I was interested, but a little skeptical. But still interested.

I started looking around the internet and came across a really cool company called Shapeways. They have a bunch of high-end 3D printers; you send them your 3D file, and they send you the part. In concept, the plan is just like the services I had used in the engineering world, but the experience is completely different. Shapeways is set up for the hobbyist. They are online-based, and you can pay with a credit card. No need to deal with sales guys, and business accounts and credit checks. And more important, the prices are an order of magnitude less than what I was used to seeing. So now, if you had any 3D-modelling skills, real parts were within reach of the hobbyist. Even more intriguing is that Shapeways makes it painless to sell your parts to other people. You put your design on the Shapeways site, and other people can order them. Shapeways charges a base amount for material and handling, and you can add whatever amount of markup (your profit) that you want. They take the orders, print the parts, and ship them out. No hassle for you.

I was intrigued to the point that I had to try it out. Since they offer a pretty big variety of materials, from plastics to metals and ceramics, I ordered one of their material sample kits. It cost about $30 at the time, and they gave you a credit for the same amount off your first parts order. I was really impressed with their stainless steel material with a brass finish.  It has an antique look, and it got me thinking of some of the cool steampunk flashdrives I had seen online. So I set out to make one for myself. I cut open an old thumb drive, measured the innards, and designed a retro-looking housing for it.

Metal flashdrive parts from Shapeways

Metal flashdrive parts from Shapeways

The parts showed up several days later, and looked pretty good. I hand-made some little add-ons, and then epoxied the whole thing together. I think it turned out pretty well.

So now I had the fanciest flashdrive in the office. But when I thought about possibly selling them, the numbers didn’t look so good. The metal printed parts are pretty expensive (about $60), and there is still quite a bit of hand-fabricating I would have to do to assemble them into a finished product. So I would need to order parts, pay for shipping to me, then assemble the parts, and ship them out. I would be losing all the advantages of the Shapeways no-hassle storefront.
And I didn’t feel like people would want to pay the $100+ I would need to charge to make it worth my time. So, in the end, I learned a lot about the process, and made myself a cool toy. But I didn’t end up with a sellable product.

Steampunk flashdrive assembled

Steampunk flashdrive assembled

For my next project, I decided to make something much simpler. I’ll go into the story of that in an upcoming post, but (spoiler alert) it’s going to be about this.


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