Take it from one now immersed in manufacturing – making things is an epic process of production, delays, shipping, customs… 3D printing is the latest DIY technology to promise to get around that, armed by the seemingly-magical translation of digital files into objects in a way other machines cannot. We’ll be looking in depth at what 3D printing can mean for music starting next week, as interest in this technology reaches fever pitch, but here are a couple of revealing case studies.

For Teenage Engineering, makers of the OP-1 synthesizer, 3D printing seems to be a real breakthrough. Their line of accessories was a clever line of mechanical cranks and LEGO Mindstorms attachments, ingenious applications of little pieces of plastic. There was just one problem: shipping costs made these accessories too expensive, and customers complained. TE responded by posting CAD files. Head to Shapeways, and you can print these parts on a 3D printer for a small price. TE has gotten plenty of attention from the media as perhaps the first to go this route. [See Wired] (I suspect replacement parts are not something new – but going the 3D printing route perhaps is, a sign of just how new this medium is as far as mainstream adoption.)

In fact, the results are so clever, I can imagine small manufacturers now looking for ways of replicating the success – considering designs they might not have otherwise.

Clever, small accessories proved to be too small – racking up shipping costs – until TE experimented with letting users 3D-print their own accessories and replacement parts.

3D printing isn’t always a panacea, however: it could be both exciting and maddening at once.

Teague Labs suggests a far more ambitious project: printable headphones.

After all, headphones are largely about the physical construction; the actual sound-producing transducer element is reasonably simple. The Teague headphones are special on a number of levels. They are a complete pair of headphones with a nice-looking design, a complete product that needs only a small amount of electronics and prints the rest on a 3D printer. But even more compelling is the breakthrough application of a pro design to a hobbyist printer. Teague began with a professional ABS FDM machine, but adapted the same design to the far more-accessible Makerbot Replicator.

Prototype as Product: 13:30 Printable Headphones [Teague Labs]
13:30 Headphones at Thingiverse
via PSFK

Just don’t get too excited, too fast. Traditional materials still offer potential that the actual substance of a 3D printer can’t match. Hobbyist printers pose their own challenges: I spoke to a 3D printing marketplace rep this week who explained to me that the fact that 3D printers aren’t running all the time in hobbyist environments causes clogs and breakdowns to become far more frequent, something you probably don’t think about. (Turns out, your inkjet printer suffers from the same problem; it’s just that ink is an easier problem to fix.)

And be prepared to wait – not only for the advancement of 3D printing, but for the model itself. These headphones take over 13 hours. That means 13 hours of printing time. Again, you see the advantage of injection molding: prepare the mold once, and then reproducing the item is fast and cost-effective, meaning that 3D printing will largely be advantageous for something that needs to be customized (and thus not replicated en masse in quantity), or something that’s easier to print on-site than ship. Correction: Apparently breathing some sort of plastic fumes, I incorrectly suggested some substantial cost. Rather than get that wrong, we’ll go into the cost issue soon as we look at one venue – Berlin’s Betahaus – that’s setting up a “fab cafe” that makes 3d printing as easy as buying an espresso. (In fact, they have espresso, too.)

Now, you can become your own headphones maker – and 3D print complex forms, easily. Just be prepared to wait about half a day on the printer.

At the same time, I love the way Teague articulates the underlying idea here:

With 3D printers becoming more accessible we decided to have a think around the concept “life in beta” as a future scenario. What if printed prototypes could become actual products? Meaning, once off the print bed an object could be assembled without any tools and be made functional by readily attainable components. I decided to stress test the premise with the challenge of making electronically simple yet functionally complex headphones.

There’s plenty to explore here, even without waiting for costs to come down and printers to get better and more affordable. (Oh, yeah, and – those things don’t just happen magically. They represent an engineering challenge a lot of people are tackling. So it’s best, I think, to look at what’s possible right now. And that turns out to be a lot.)

After all, the fact that Teenage Engineering made some clever accessories more affordable demonstrates that this doesn’t have to be a dream, after all.

Join us next week and in the near future as we look more at 3D printing advances with our summer industrial design intern and other experts in the field. Have a good weekend, and see you Monday.

  • Joshua Young

    I am a naive man by nature, so ever since first (mistakenly?) comprehending the concept of a 3D printer I have feeling a little weak in the proverbial knees. The possibilities keep doing wheelies in my mind, though I know it’s early and things take time etc. Are we about to see some sort of crazy Micro Industrial Revolution? At the very least, many of us are about to get very, very intimate with polymers, and how can that be a bad thing?

    First up for me: well a midi bong, of course!

  • http://www.afrodjmac.com/ AfroDJMac

    I just received my accessories for the Teenage Engineering OP-1, via Shapeways 3-D Printing. I’m very satisfied. First off, the accessories are a fun and a cool new way to manipulate the OP-1. Secondly, the whole lot of them was about $10, (I passed on the Lego Wheel thing).
    Now these aren’t complaints, but… they come in all white, not the colorful versions T.E. is offering. They certainly do not seem indestructible; I’m pretty sure if I wanted to Hulk-out, I could snap these things in half. But even with those caveats in mind, they are extremely functional and by no means fragile, the prices are outstanding, they fit perfectly, and are fun. I am an unapologetic T.E. fan, the OP-1 is one of the most incredible INSTRUMENTS I have EVER purchased (yea, up there with my American Stratocaster), but the shipping was a deal breaker on the accessories. This 3-D printing option is just another cool thing T.E. has done, and I applaud that. I could certainly envision a not-so-distant future in which we are ordering 3-D printed replacement knobs, faders, and all those little things that tend to break and get lost. I think it’s very exciting!

  • Greg Lőrincz

    In five years will be able to print electronic circuits. Mark my words! Just imagine, printing a drum machine…

    • laurent

      printing a PCB (polycarbonate board) is the easiest part of the process and many companies already provide this service online (same for 3d printing). I imagine, companies like “Epson” will be more than happy to sell you a very hype and expensive piece of plastic junk machinery that you will use 3 or 4 times to print silly gadgets……

    • Greg Lőrincz

      Who would buy such thing to use it 3-4 times and why? Don’t really understand what you mean by polycarbonate board.You cannot print a circuitry, there’s no such thing available yet. It would (will) revolutionise electronics!

    • Greg Lőrincz

      I doubt you got what I wrote, Laurent.

  • Tom

    This is inspiring for the DIY musician community. 3D printing will mark a revolution in affordability in home studio music production, along with pretty much every other hobby. Im really excited to see whats in store for the future of this technology. For now this is what DIY MIDI controller hardware is limited to: http://www.thedubstepcreator.com/2012/10/14/diy-midi-controller/

  • markLouis

    Limited-edition custom guitar picks fabricated fresh before every show? Or some lucky fan gets chosen at the start of a show and gets a profile photo taken and that profile becomes the form of a pick that Keith Richards uses for one of the big numbers. Or custom picks based on fans for every song and then auction off the picks for charity. Why aren’t bands doing this crap stuff now?

  • kkonkkrete

    Hands up who’s actually used a 3D printer. Thought so. I have. The material is really expensive. It’s noisy. The machine is big. It takes forever. The output is generally crap, compared to essentially all other manufacturing processes. It involves noxious chemicals. You have to have a second special machine for blasting the horrible support material off afterwards. Personally, I would much rather go to a shop and just buy something. In the future these shortcomings will presumably go away. But at the moment, we are a long way from this being a satisfactory way of delivering products into end user’s hands.

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Right, but that’s why I used the OP-1 illustration. It’s a real-world example. And generally, I think at this point we’re interested in the things you can’t simply go to a shop and buy. So the headphones example is limited, but the OP-1 parts – which were too expensive to buy shipped from the source – makes more sense.

    • ahnicks

      I have one. a reprap huxley. its very small. costs about $500. prints very well. does take forever unless you calibrate it by hand to go fast, which isnt hard and the output is amazing. i use PLA which is biodegradable plastic, so no toxic anything. actually it smells nice.

      if you would rather go to the store to buy somthing then this era of 3d printing is definitely not for you because reprap needs to be watched constantly and breaks down on a whim. and the calibration stage takes around a month of your free time which is excessive. there are others that cost more with little or no calibration but whats the fun in that.

      the benefit is that with a good CAD software, you can design things that you can not design easily any other way. the time it takes to create something with one is on par with any other means of creating, art in my case.

      I felt the same as you before i bought mine but now i can not imagine my life or my art without one. if there is one in your town, you should play with it a bit and get a feel for it. it will change your life if you create things.