What is a 3D printer good for?

What is a 3D printer good for?  I assume this is a question most 3D printer owners get asked repeatedly and I’ve never been quite sure how to respond.  Somehow the media has convinced many people that 3D printers are only useful for making guns and useless plastic trinkets.

So here’s how 3D printing has made it’s way into one of my hobbies, summer backpacking in the High Sierra.  This is a picture from my last trip, and it explains things in a way I can’t with words.  There are about two dozen different designs and over 50 printed pieces of plastic/rubber.  This is not a “walter the plastic boy” style made up shot, I’m a real person and these are the things I carry with me on summer backpacking trips.



Here’s what’s in the picture and why I made it:

Fluxring Cover (NinjaFlex) – Keeps the pot’s heat exchanger from getting damaged or damaging other things, replaces a combo plate/cover that came with the pot.

Fishing Lure Inserts (PET) – These inserts lets me pack more lures (and a leatherman) into a small case without them getting completely tangled together (It still does get tangled sometimes).

Tripod Ballhead Friction Plate (Nylon) – Part of a replacement tripod plate to keep the ballhead attached to the tripod (not shown since the tripod is holding the camera).

Tripod Hook and O-ring Replacement (NinjaFlex) – Replaced several parts broken part of the tripod’s hook with 3D printed parts (not shown).  I always tie down the tripod when leaving it up overnight after a bad experience in a lake.

Compass Strap (ABS) – Attaches a spare compass to my pack (there’s a second one on my camera bag).  It’s mostly there as backup in case I break my phone (which I use as a gps).

Solar LED Cap (PET/ABS) – Charges during the day, works as a low light lantern at night.  I mostly use it as a night light so I can find things in the dark without the risk of blinding myself with a headlamp.

Lens Filter Case (ABS) – The case holds 3 lens filters in a compact case, it’s designed with different size compartments to match each filter.

SD Card Holder (PET) – Holds 6 SD cards in a case that’s barely thicker than a single card.  Before designing this case, I tried about half a dozen different card cases, but they were either too bulky and/or did not hold the cards securely when opened.

Stove Leveling Feet (PET) – Backpacking in the High Sierra, I’m usually camped out on solid granite slabs (I choose camp sites based on view, not flatness).  While the granite is often polished as smooth as a kitchen countertop by glaciers, it’s rarely level.  These clip on feel let me level the fuel canister by sliding them around.

Salt Shaker (PET/ABS) – This salt shaker was designed specifically for backpacking.  It’s light, can opened and closed with one hand, is easily packed with other kitchen utensils, and does not have a separate cap that can be lost or blown away in the wind.

Swivel Case (ABS / PET) – I sized this case to store a few of my most frequently used lures.

Ceramic Knife Handle (PET) – This is very cheap ceramic knife to use for cleaning fish (I wanted one in ceramic so I could leave it out without worrying about rust).  The original handle was much larger and thicker than I wanted, so I replaced it.

Fishing Pole Handle (PET) – The replacement handle parts serve a few purposes, it lets me attach spincast reels (which I prefer), lets me store the fishing rod fully assembled (often with a lure attached), and is more comfortable.  Being able to pull out the rod, set up, and cast a few times in a few minutes lets me fish on the go, and has let me fish many lakes that I wouldn’t have had the chance to fish otherwise.  Often, one or two casts is all you need in some of these off-trail high sierra lakes.

D-Ring (TPU) – Attaches to a carabiner to keep the camera bag secure against the backpack.

Camera Bag Inserts (Ninjaflex / PET) –  These inserts go into the camera bag underneath the camera.  They have enough space to hold one spare battery and a lens, and raises the camera higher to align with the top of the bag so it can be more easily reached.

Inflation Valve Adapter (NinjaFlex) – The adapter press-fits on my inflatable sleeping pad and pillow valves, making it much easier to attach and detach the inflating bag.  The bag was designed to attach using bungee cord and a cordlock, which never really worked for me.

Water Filter Cover (NinjaFlex) – This cover replaces a much larger and heavier filter cover that was overkill for my use.

Dromedary Bag Spigot Cap (ABS) – This cap lets me use a standard bagged wine valve with a dromedary bag.  If you’ve ever used the cap that came with a dromedary bag, you’d know why it needs to be replaced (the do sell a slightly better replacement valve but I prefer this kind).

Dry Bag Buckle (PET) – Small clasp to keep the dry bag closed, replaces an oversized buckle that it came with.

CR2032 Battery Case (PET) – Small cases to hold spare CR2032 batteries (spare batteries for an intervalometer).

Key Strap Ring (NinjaFlex) – Rubber strap which functions as a keyring.

Spare Key Handle (ABS) – I removed the plastic from a spare key and printed a minimal handle in it’s place.  It’s small enough to fit in a wetsuit pocket and I bring it as a backup key when backpacking.  The handle was printed over the key in one piece.

Stackable Camera Battery Holders (PET) – The battery holders allow me to connect multiple camera batteries together and keep them organized (I also number each battery and use them sequentially).

Timelapse Power Supply (ABS) – This lets me power my camera with up to 3 batteries at once, giving me enough power to last through an overnight winter timelapse without waking up.  This was one of my first prints.

Lens Case Attachment Plate (PLA) – This plate is used to attach a standard lens case to my camera bag, it slots into the side pouch.

Pentax Rear Lens Caps (ABS/NinjaFlex) –  The injection molded lens caps I was using previously had a tendency to fall off so I made new ones that fits more securely, are a few mm shorter, and have a NinjaFlex gasket to seal and clean the electrical contacts each time it’s used.

14mm Lens Cap (PET) – Minimal lens cap that replaces a very large lens cap that was too large to fit in my standard lens cases.

Camera Battery USB Charger (PET/ABS) – Recharges my cellphone (which I use as a GPS, alarm clock, star chart, and sunset/sunrise clock).  It is power by the same batteries as my camera.


Thousand Island Lake

So why design and print my own backpacking gear?  That I can’t answer with a picture.  In many ways the answer is similar to why I would choose to cook at home.  Sometimes it’s about making exactly what I want, sometimes it’s just more convenient, sometimes it’s because it’s fun, sometimes it’s for the challenge, sometimes it’s to learn something new, usually it’s a combination of these factors.  I can buy higher quality products made by more talented designers and eat food cooked by better chefs (and more often than not I will), but I will still design, print, or cook for myself when it’s something I enjoy doing.

Garnet Lake

For the backpackers:  My pack weight is usually around 35-40lbs in the summer, including 8-10lbs of camera gear (dslr, tripod, lenses, batteries).  I go fishing more often than not, which is why I bring the large 3L pot (for smoking trout).  I don’t use tents, boots, or sleeping bags (I prefer sleeping under the stars, hiking in sandals, and using down blankets).  All of these photos were taken in Ansel Adams Wilderness, California, USA.