Can I 3D Print Anything? What You Need to Know

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

Curtis Satterfield, Ph.D.

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As an educator and 3d printing enthusiast my students often ask if we can 3D print anything. While it is true that you can print many things with a 3D printer, we can’t print everything. What you can print depends on the type of 3D printer and the material.

3D Printers can print many things, but they cannot print everything. What you can 3D print is dependent on the type of printer you are using, and the material used in the printer.  

What Can be 3D Printed?

Materials

All 3D printers use some form of material to print with. The most common materials that can be 3D printed are:

  • Plastic
  • Nylon
  • Resins
  • Silver
  • Titanium
  • Steel
  • Wax
  • Polycarbonate

If the object is made from one of the above materials it can probably be 3D printed. Materials such as metal need expensive industrial machines and are not viable options for home printers. The most common materials used for home printing are plastic and resin.  

Complexity

Object complexity also determines if an object can be printed. Complex assemblies often need to be printed as individual parts and assembled. A person can’t simply click print and expect a fully working car engine to be printed when the printer finishes. The technology is constantly evolving and one day we may be able to 3D print anything. Current research in 3D printing has shown promise for printing everything from cells to human organs. Unfortunately, current printers do not have the capability to print everything.

Industries Utilizing 3D Printing

Currently, 3D printing is becoming extremely popular for industrial applications. Several business sectors currently use and research 3D printing processes for their industry. Example industries using 3D printing are:

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Defense and Security
  • Automotive
  • Medical
  • Dental
  • Consumer Goods
  • Industrial Goods

Currently, the largest use of 3D printing in industry is for rapid prototyping. This allows a company to design a part using Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) software and have that part printed without a long wait time. The parts are then tested as soon as the printing is complete. The ability to rapidly test parts speeds up the manufacturing process. Rapid prototyping allows companies to develop and produce their products much faster.  

Some industries even use 3D printed items as end products. When companies need to produce 1 -1000 pieces of an item 3D printing saves time and money for the company. Typically, parts are manufactured in bulk at special factories taking months for a company to receive their parts. Utilizing 3D printing, companies can produce the exact number of parts they need. 3D printing eliminates the wait time of a traditional manufacturing processes.

What are manufacturers 3D printing?

  • GE Aviation uses 3d-printed fuel nozzles in it’s LEAP Engine.
  • Johnson and Johnson produce 3D printed surgical tools and patient specific implants.
  • Oreck utilizes 3D printing to reduce its vacuum cleaner assembly time.
  • Soundz utilized 3D printing to reduce the lead time for tweeter grills.
  • BMW used 3D printing to reduce the weight of their handheld assembly tools.

Information courtesy of ProtoLabs

3D Printing Research

Many aspects of 3D printing are currently being researched by companies and universities. The quest for largerstronger, and faster prints has been a major focus since the start of 3D printing in the 1980s. Printers are being developed that can print large structures such as bridges and houses. A California company is currently working on building a full 3D printed rocket which they hope to launch in 2021.

Other avenues of interest in 3D printing include; cellstissuehuman skin, and parts of human organs. Researchers still have a long way to go before printing full organs for transplant patients. However, they are hopeful that one day it can reduce long wait lists for transplant patients.  

What Can I 3D Print?

The best way to answer this question is to think about what you would like to print. For example, if you want to print a plastic replica of your favorite movie prop such as a light saber, you could absolutely do that. Printing large functional objects such as furniture requires specialized printing companies. On the other hand, 3D printing a remote holder for your coffee table, is doable for a home printer.

Ideas for items that you can print at home with a consumer grade 3D printer include:

  • Cell phone holders and accessories
  • Miniatures & figures
  • Movie prop replicas
  • Desk organizers
  • Accessories for photography
  • Computer and home theater cable organizers
  • Headphone holders
  • Kitchen gadgets
  • Tool organizers
  • Planters for indoor plants
  • Educational toys

Examples of consumer 3D printed items

I have gathered several examples of 3D printed objects for use at home that the average user can 3D print. I have grouped the examples into two sections, useful and fun. The useful section demonstrates how you can use 3D printing to improve your home or apartment. The fun sections contain 3D printable items that don’t necessarily have a practical purpose but are fun to print and use.

Useful Items

 Workbench Storage for Dremel bits

3D Printed Dremel Drill Bit Holder

If like me, you have a ton of rotary tool bits this handy bit tray might be for you! The design allows you to group different bits by size and use making it easy to find the exact right bit you need. The tidy layout also means you will no longer need to go digging through toolboxes and drawers for that elusive bit!

Mechanical Quick Grab/Release Phone Stand

3D Printed Mechanical Holder Phone Stand

There are hundreds of phone stand designs available online to download and print. This quick release stand will add a bit of style to your desk. In addition to being easy to use it can also be adjusted so your phone screen sits at the exact angle you want. While not necessary, using multiple colors of filament can give your stand a custom look.

Spray Can Holder

3D printed spray can holder

I don’t know about you, but I have a collection of spray cans in my garage. Lubricants, spray paints, cleaners, and the list goes on. If you are a collector of spray cans like me, this print may be for you. The can rack is wall mountable and you can print and connect as many holders as you need!

 

3D Printed Photography Sweep Stand

At some point after you’ve been 3d printing for a while you may decide you want to share pictures of your prints with everyone. This sweep stand will allow you to use a professional style photography backdrop with a sheet of paper and a couple hours of print time. Use with a cell phone or a nice DSLR camera for great looking pictures. I use this 3d printed stand for many of the photos I have taken for this website.

Fun Items

3D Printed Ironman SD Card Holder

I classify this model as fun and useful. The face shield opens to reveal storage for several SD and Micro SD cards. Print in multiple filament colors or prime and paint to resemble Iron Man’s helmet!

3D Printer Card Deck Shuffler

Love card games but hate shuffling? Perhaps you have a game with so many cards it gets tedious mixing them up. If so then give this 3D printable card shuffler a try and skip the hand cramps.

3D Printed Custom Light Saber

Want your own custom lightsaber and stand? You can absolutely print one with a 3D printer. There are many models freely available online for you to download and print. With a custom paint job, you can have your own custom light saber. Well, you can have your own light saber handle. We still don’t have the technology to make real light sabers.

What Should You 3D Print?

So far, we’ve talked about what can be 3D printed versus what cannot be 3D printed. We’ve further identified differences between what can be 3d printed with high end industrial printers versus what you can print at home. At this point you may be thinking, I’d love to do some 3D printing, but what should I print? The simple answer is to print what makes you happy. Unless you are running a business printing items for customers, you get to choose what to print. Did you find any of the items in the above lists intriguing? Maybe you have ideas for how to better organize your house with 3d printed items. Or maybe you like the idea of designing your own items and printing them out. Perhaps you love playing tabletop games and want to use a 3D printer to print miniatures and terrain for your games. You can do all of that and more with a 3D printer. The only question remaining is what do you want to 3D print?