3D Printing For Electronic Lab Organization
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3D printing technology offers electronic designers fantastic opportunities to improve their development processes, produce product mock-ups and even create custom parts for their production devices. However, the benefits of 3D printers don’t end there; they can have another equally important purpose in your design process, namely, helping you organize your electronics lab space so you can work smarter.
The typical electronics lab space will be full of tools, half-completed projects, spare parts, random components, and lots of cables and wires. While everything is essential and needs to be there, often it’s a struggle to find places to put everything so you’ll find it again the next time you need it. What can appear to be an unruly mess to a casual observer is a highly organized chaos that has slowly evolved, adhering to the scientific principles of entropy.
The key to creating order from the chaos is having places to put everything, a storage solution that will work for your specific needs and that can evolve with your lab. Each new project you start will inevitably come with new components and sometimes new tools. As you kick off more projects, your storage and organization requirements will grow faster. The answer is a bespoke storage solution you can add whenever you need additional elements. The answer is to tap into the power of your 3D printer; you have the capability to solve your organizational problem already available, so why not use it to the full? This article will share some tips and resources to help you get started.
3D printers are now a common resource used for electronic development thanks to their versatility, practicality, and in recent years affordability. 3D printers are now relatively inexpensive to purchase, and equally as important, the raw materials they consume are readily available and reasonably priced. These advantages open their use to everyone, from hobbyists to small businesses and manufacturers.
If you haven’t yet purchased your first 3D printer, a few popular types are ideal for any electronics lab. The most common type is filament printers, essentially computer-controlled hot glue guns. These printers work by taking in a continuous spool of plastic filament, which melts at the print head, allowing precise placement to build up layers of material that solidify after deposition. The layers build up from the bottom upwards to form a 3D object. A key benefit of filament printers is the range of available materials that offer the user different mechanical properties and colors. This allows you to switch materials between jobs or even in the middle of a print to change color or produce objects with varying properties.
The second most common type of printer uses a liquid resin cured using ultraviolet (UV) light to solidify the printing material. These printer types can either have a UV laser beam for selectively curing resin at precise points or use a photo mask exposing only selected areas of the resin tank to broad area UV light.
Various powder-based printers that use binding agents applied using a separate print head or heat from a laser source to solidify the powder in the required areas are available. While these printer types have the greatest flexibility in material types to optimize mechanical and surface finish properties, these are at the higher end of the cost range, and you won’t generally find them in the smaller lab settings of hobbyists and small businesses.
Personal experience over the past 12 years has found that filament printers offer the best performance in a small lab setting. The use of a resin printer was hampered by issues around the printed object warping slightly during the post-curing process and the end product being too brittle. The filament printer produces a higher quality product with better mechanical properties to suit applications for components such as device controls and the bespoke storage equipment discussed here. However, recent advances in materials are making resin printers more attractive. They may become comparable or even overtake filament printers in their applicability for lab work in the near future. Watch this space for updates on the latest developments in 3D printer technology.
If using a filament printer for lab work, the recommended print material is polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified, or PETG for short. PET is a commonly used thermoplastic polymer resin from the polyester family, widely used in manufacturing everything from clothing to food containers and water bottles. The PETG variant has a lower melting point, making it ideal for injection molding and sheet extrusion. These properties also make it great for filament extrusions to use in a 3D printer.
PETG filament comes in small rolls that are fed into the printer head.
The key reason why this material is excellent for lab printing is that it has a very low thermal expansion coefficient, meaning the dimensions of printed parts remain stable during the cooling process, maintaining the correct size. Additional benefits are that the material is relatively cheap and retains mechanical flexibility when solidifying, making it highly durable for applications where parts do not need to be intensely rigid. This durability is perfect for lab space organizations where materials can handle everyday handling as you take out tools and components and hopefully remember to put them back once finished.
3D printers can produce any storage part you need; you just need the imagination to visualize what you need and the applications to turn these ideas into design files that your printer will understand. I use the following parts in my storage solution that I offer as suggestions to improve the organization of your lab space. All the design files for the 3D printed elements are available on both the Thingiverse and Printables resources, so you can use these as is or adapt them to your own needs. If you use the design files, don’t forget to let me know who you got on and any suggestions on how I can improve the designs.
The first suggestion is an improvement to the component drawers ideal for housing the parts you regularly use when prototyping projects. As electronics designers, you know there will always be more components than available drawers. Hence, a simple solution is adding 3D-printed drawer dividers with helpful labels to separate smaller pieces and maximize your storage space.