3-D printing has gotten a lot of buzz, sometimes pretty out of proportion to what it’s actually produced. (Custom chess pieces? Tiny figurines? Perhaps a bobblehead doll selfie?)
But the technology is just now reaching that critical stage when it starts to turn out some amazingly inventive, useful things. Things that open up new potential for hobbyists, scientists, and people who want to help others.
Here, three of our favorite 3-D printer projects that are really pushing the envelope of what can be done with a CAD design and a tube full of melty plastic. All of them are open source – a hallmark of the maker movement – so anyone can download the files and help improve the designs.
Print and Play Your Own F-F-Fiddle
For entrepreneurial musicians, the F-F-Fiddle will be music to your printer's gears. Mechanical engineer David Perry of OpenFab PDX has designed this full-sized, 3-D printable, electric violin which you can actually play.
A violinist since the first grade, Perry had aspired to building a violin himself, but it wasn't until he scored his own 3-D printer in January 2013 that modeling and constructing the instrument became feasible.
You can print the violin's structure, divided into three main parts, in 10-20 hours, but you can't make the music happen without buying other essential, non-printable parts, such as strings and tuners. But for about $250 in materials and three to six hours of assembly time, you can create your own fiddle in the color combination of your choice. Get the design files and instructions for printing and picking tunes at openfabpdx.com/fffiddle.
Give e-NABLE a Hand
Your 3-D printer can produce a prosthetic hand for someone in need, and e-NABLE can help you to do it. This worldwide online community connects those with access to 3-D printers to those (often children) missing fingers or part of a hand.
e-NABLE has developed three primary, open source designs of functional hands (and several variations), which anyone can download, 3-D print, and assemble. A Washington prop-maker and a carpenter in South Africa who lost four fingers in an accident pioneered the original hand design for a five-year-old. This chance collaboration inspired what would become the e-NABLE community.
The hand designs generally consist of a gauntlet attached to the arm or wrist, articulated fingers for gripping, and a system of “tendons,” which allows wearers to close or open the fingers by bending or straightening their wrists. For less than $50 in parts and 8-14 hours on your printer, you can lend a hand at www.enablingthefuture.org.
Catch Rays with the Smartphone Spectrometer
What if you could point your smartphone at a water sample and identify pollutants? Giving communities that power—via open source hardware and software—is the goal of Public Lab, an online community and nonprofit. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill motivated Public Lab to develop a $5 DIY spectrometer using smartphones.
The smartphone spectrometer consists of a 3-D printed plastic frame (2.5 hours print time) holding a thin prism in front of the phone's camera. It works when you shine full-spectrum light through a liquid or dissolved sample, which enters the spectrometer frame through a narrow slit, aligning the light as it hits the prism and camera.
Your camera records and graphs the resulting intensity of colors passing through the sample. View and compare this unique spectrum with Public Lab's open database at SpectralWorkbench.org to classify your sample's composition. See the light at publiclab.org/wiki/smartphone-spectrometer.