3D Printing Mobile Phone Accessories and Cases

Published on April 26, 2017

3D Printing Mobile Phone Accessories and Cases

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  • Mobile phone accessories are some of the most 3D printed items by home users.
  • Increasingly companies are also discovering ways to prototype and produce items for smart phones.

Cell phone accessories are some of the most widely 3D printed items worldwide. Desktop 3D printer users have in great numbers taken to designing and manufacturing all manner of accessories. The most popular item by far is smart phone cases. Also common are stands, charging docks, stands that you can use to hang the phone from, styluses, cases that become wallets and many more items.

There is a wide array of different styles of these accessories. Some are purely functional with no real design elements, a case designed to be hung from an aircraft tray table hook for example. Some are pure esthetic designs that offer little in the form of increased functionality. These designs can be very personal or be inspired by gothic, modernist or futurist designs. Fractal inspired designs are very common as well. Relatively few items combine both pleasing esthetics with functionality.

The vast majority of the designed items fall into two categories: they are either meant to have a functional purpose or they are just fun items meant to make a phone prettier. The more fluff type items seem to be whimsical things that are created in order to satisfy some curiosity or flight of fancy. Other items are rather dour from a design standpoint and this illustrates the practical nature of the 3D printer operator.

Many items are designed by people for themselves, a design and a 3D print with an audience of one. Other items are specifically designed for the community at large and are meant to benefit a wider audience of people. Some cases are only for one particular phone or a very niche application. Customization tools and parametric designs let one model be adapted so it can be used for many different types of phone. Simultaneously some designs themselves can be customized so that someone can put their name on their 3D printed phone case or add a depth map to it.

There is also real invention taking place with new solutions being developed for mobile phones through 3D printing that did not previously exist. An integrated speaker and mobile phone stand for example or a stand which lets the phone be placed on top of the plug when it is in the power outlet. These novelties are often quicker to market than the thousands of mobile phone acessories companies are. The low cost of prototyping with 3D printing and the fast production process ensure that for a few dollars someone at home can print out any idea they have in a day or so.

 

 

Tens of thousands of mobile phone cases have been 3D printed and thousands of files for these cases and other accessories are bing shared worldwide. If the fit and finish of 3D printed products improves marginally then this could mean a real threat to the accessories market.

3D printed mobile phone accessories require no stock and can be printed on demand for an individual design and an type of phone. Since each normal accessory requires a new mold per phone model and phones are quickly replaced the continued investment in molds is considerable. With 3D printing you have none of those costs in molding and tooling. 3D printing also lets you get quicker to market than with a molding process. Time and time again some of the earliest cases appearing for new iPhones or other models are 3D printed cases. Typically, the day of the announcement, as soon as specs are released the first 3D printed cases start to appear.

Currently most mobile phone cases are made either through Selective Laser Sintering or Fused Deposition Modeling. With SLS an industrial system can produce a high volume of cases in a twenty-four hour period. The case surface quality and detail are typically higher than with FDM but they are also more expensive. With FDM in a few hours 4 cases or so can be made with a desktop 3D printer. These are lower cost and often more robust than the SLS cases.

With either production process the issues emerge with the lateral stress placed on thin wall segments in the case. A opening for a button on the side of the wall may have a 1mm. separation for example. This one millimeter wall will often not be strong enough when the case is 3D printed. Apart from this limitation, and the surface finish of the part, the cases are typically strong and robust if designed well.

What is the significance of the plethora of 3D printed mobile phone cases out there? It is simply a very ideal business case for 3D printing. Cases are personal items. These are things you can hold and touch and carry with you. Personalization and the uniqueness of these items therefore really makes sense. It is also a high fashion item where tastes and trends have big effects on the market. Not holding stock and producing on demand especially makes sense for these kinds of markets.

Mobile phone cases are also very flat. This means that they can be printed quickly in the horizontal position. It takes around two hours to make a 3D printed mobile phone case on the Nectar One.

If you bought a Nectar One and write it off in two years you would be looking at a cost of $9 per day for the printer. Energy costs would be less than $1 per day for the printer. If a part used 50 grams of filament, (if we bought filament commercially for $40 per 1 KG) the material cost would be $2. Some labor would be required to press print and remove the model from the build platform. If we estimate that labor would cost us $60 per hour than 1 minutes would be a good estimate per part at $1. Each case would cost $3 per case and the printer would be $10 per day. Depending on the case and phone size you could make approximately one case per two hours (or more this depends on their size and the orientation). If you could make ten cases a day the cost per case would be $4. This is higher than the production cost of mass manufactured cases but there is no stock required. In items similar to phone cases we can see that there are very cost effective business models emerging for small accessory items. By and large these kinds of businesses are being discovered by the desktop 3D printing community but not yet commercialized. There are no mayor retailers yet thinking of using 3D printing to manufacture phone accessories but there is a real business case there for those retailers looking into 3D printing.