The Wikipedia page for 3D printing defines it as “various processes used to synthesize a three-dimensional object.” For our purposes? It’s melting material and reshaping it into awesome quadcopter parts. The always entertaining ElectroBOOM has a great video describing the process in a very easy to understand and approachable way:
I really like his hot glue gun example, as that is a very accurate analogy to describe the process to someone who has never seen a 3D printer in action. Using different filaments (the glue sticks in the hot glue gun example) we are able to take 3D models and bring them to life.
3D printing is frequently mentioned alongside quadcopters and VR as being another revolutionary new technology, but how can we use it for practical purposes to help make our flying creations even better?
What do you need to 3D print quadcopter parts?
The great thing about 3D printing is its increasing availability. You don’t necessarily need a printer to get your models printed. More and more public libraries, universities, and online services make printing available for much less than the cost of buying your own printer. Similarly, you don’t need to be well versed in 3D modeling. With aggregators like Yeggi and social sharing hubs like Thingiverse, parts for nearly every frame on the market can be found easily.
For example, let’s do a quick search on Thingiverse for “ZMR 250”:
Crazy right?! I was floored the first time I searched through Thingiverse. People have graciously put up amazingly designed models for us to print and use on our quads. Best of all? 99% of these models are free to download and use. Do a quick search for your quad and I bet you will see similar results.
OK, so there is a lot of stuff out there, maybe even an overwhelming amount of stuff, so what things would be useful for us to print at home?
FPV camera mounts: I can’t even describe how happy I was to find a camera mount that fit snuggly on my ZMR with very little modification. If you are using a board camera without a casing, printing a mount for angling your FPV camera will make your life so much easier. Not only can you more accurately adjust the tilt of your camera, you also protect your camera by keeping it in a much more secure housing. Side note – be sure to check out Novuh’s post on quadcopter build durability tips after reading this article to see what you can do to make stronger and longer lasting builds.
Action camera mounts: You just built your quad and want to get some amazing footage to show your friends. Where do you put your fancy GoPro or RunCam? Most quad frames and build packages don’t come with action camera mounts, and the ones that have a platform for the camera (ZMR 250 as an example) feel wobbly and offer little protection in the case of a crash. Luckily for us, we can find 3D printable models of camera enclosures and mounts for pretty much every action camera on the market.
Component holders/spacers/platforms: Want to protect the insides of your quad from debris by building a frame around your standoffs? How about covers for your ESCs or other components? If you can think it… someone has probably already designed it! You can add some extra protection to your internal components, or perhaps make your layout a bit cleaner with some aftermarket 3D parts. Another cool thing? Manufactures like Shendrones are giving out the models for some of the components that come with their frames. Break something? No need to wait for a return shipment when you can just print another copy.
Parts for your other gear: Novuh broke one of the back covers on his Taranis late last year. First thing he did was go on Yeggi, found someone had already designed a rear cover, and printed it out. Similarly, you can find other awesome tools to make your flying experience better. There are numerous GoPro mounts for tripods, battery cases and covers, and many more models for other gear that doesn’t necessarily go on your quadcopter.
I could go on and on, but really the possibilities are limitless. You can even print a frame to build your own custom quadcopter if you really wanted to.
The way I see it, there are two key components at the end of the day – the 3D model and the 3D printer. Depending on what you want to do, or rather how much you want to invest, you can go a few ways:
- At home 3D printer + 3D modeling software
- At home 3D printer + downloadable 3D models
- Printing service + 3D modeling software
- Printing service + downloadable 3D models
Depending on what category you fall in, you can skip around this section to see what you need
Want to design your own models or make adjustments to other 3D models? If so, then you are going to need some sort of 3D modeling software. For most users, I would recommend SketchUp Make. It is extremely easy to learn, exports a variety of formats, and best of all is free. Blender is another free option that has a ton of options, but a much steeper learning curve. If you want professional software and have money to burn, you could go for Solidworks or AutoCAD.
Some of our friends over on r/multicopter had some suggestions as well:
ImplicitCAD and OpenSCAD– for the programmers out there, these CAD platforms model products via code. If you are an experienced programmer and prefer to let the math do the work for you, these might be a good option. (thanks u/btreecat!)
Fusion 360 and OnShape – cloud based CAD programs from Autodesk and OnShape. These are professional CAD programs with a wide array of features. These programs operate on a subscription model, though OnShape does have a free version for hobbyists. (thanks u/ON_A_POWERPLAY and u/btreecat!)
You will likely want some physical tools to go along with your software. If you are planning on modeling your own products, a good pair of calipers is absolutely necessary. These will help ensure that your prints are sized correctly, and eliminate a lot of the guesswork when putting together your model. This is especially true if you are trying to make cases for your action cameras or plates to fit different parts of your frame. Similarly, pen and paper can help you sketch out ideas and make correct measurements before diving into the software. It is much easier to solve problems with your model concept on paper, rather than spending hours modifying and undoing commands within software. Similarly, having a good compass and protractor will help you calculate angles correctly when drawing out your model.
Want to print quadcopter parts without having to leave the comfort of your own home? Well then you are going to need to get yourself a 3D printer. There are a ton of review sites that can help you make the decision on what 3D printer is best for you. We used 3dhubs.com reviews (link below) to narrow down our decision and find the printer that worked best for us. At the end of the day, we ended up with the Lulzbot Mini. We have been very happy with this printer, and appreciate the fine work the team at 3D Hubs put into their review process.
Check out their 2016 Best 3D printer Guide here. This article should give you a better idea of the more popular options on the market, and has great information for a variety of price points. At minimum, look to spend at least $300 to get in at the entry level of 3D printing. Obviously, higher priced products allow you to use different features, filaments (more on that below), or more print space. For cheaper printers, All3D has a pretty solid guide on your options.
Of course, after you get your printer, you are going to need filament to actually print something! Unless you are printing something structural (frames and such), we recommend starting out with PLA or ABS filament. These are two of the easiest to use filaments, relatively strong, and compatible with many consumer 3D printers. We have been using OrbPolymer filament for the last six months (both PLA and ABS) and have been happy with the results.
However, there are a TON of different filaments and materials that you can print with. We plan to write up more details on this in a future article, but for now check out Matterhackers information on different filament types – it definitely will give you a good idea what is out there. Rule of thumb though? Use easy to print / less flexible filaments such as ABS / PLA / etc. on things that aren’t meant to take a beating (FPV goggle additions, random parts within the quad) and filaments such as Nylon / PET / etc. on things that will meet the ground more often (frame parts, camera mounts, etc.)
Accessory wise, most printers should come with a palette knife and tweezers (I linked both in case you need them), but there are a few other things you should consider. Depending on the print bed that you use, you will need an adhesive to keep the heated filament secure to the print bed. Without the adhesive, the print will turn into a goopy mess. Kapton tape is highly recommended for covering print beds and can withstand the heat needed for printing ABS products. Glue sticks (like the ones you used in elementary school) are recommended for additional adhesion.
In other words, the cost isn’t just in the printer. While over the long run, printing your own models may make sense financially, don’t forget to consider all of the other variable costs that you will accrue over time.
Where to get 3D models for your quadcopter
At the end of the day, you are going to need stuff to print! While you might design some of your own things, it is always helpful to have resources for other parts or ideas. While there are a ton of repositories online for general 3D models, drone and quadcopter parts can be a bit harder to find. Here are a few of the sites we use:
Yeggi – The all in one 3D model aggregator. Yeggi grabs 3D models from around the internet and lists them on their site. We found Yeggi to be a great starting point when searching for models. Simply type in your frame and a ton of models will pop up.
Thingiverse – Created by the folks over at MakerBot, Thingiverse acts as a social hub for 3D models. Users can post their own models, favorite models to print later, and comment on other user’s designs. It is a great place to list models you make to share them with the community.
Pinshape – Another great resource for finding a variety of quadcopter products. Pinshape also offers designers a way to sell their models to the community.
YouMagine – Another site developed by the makers of a 3D printer. YouMagine does not have the depth of quadcopter related products that Thingiverse has at the time of this writing – but a site to keep an eye on nonetheless
GrabCAD – On the more professional edge of the spectrum, GrabCAD offers an impressive array of 3D models. Here you will find full models of parts like frames and motors. However, you won’t find many basic parts such as camera mounts and the like.
Printing services (where to print your models!)
First and foremost, check around locally for places that offer discounted (or even free) 3D printing services. The two we would recommend checking first are libraries and universities. These locations usually offer reduced, or even free pricing when using their devices.
Travelinlibrarian put together an insanely detailed map of libraries (and universities) that offer 3D printing services. The map can be found below:
If you are unsure if your school has 3D printing services, we recommend starting with the library and engineering department.
Another local option is a hackerspace or makerspace. Google around to find out if you have a location like this nearby. Most of these are pay per month to use their facilities, but some may be open to bartering services – especially if you have some 3D modeling chops. Here is a long, long list of hackerspace locations around the world.
Assuming you don’t have a local option for printing, you can always print your models using an online service. We don’t have much experience using online services for printing, but here are a few sites recommended by the community:
Have you used any of these services (or have one to recommend)? If so, let us know your experience in the comments below!
3D printing can add another level of customization to your quadcopter. There is no shortage of resources for models and printing to help bring your vision to life. We plan to create more guides and information on 3D printing in the future. If you have ideas on topics that would help the community, definitely let us know!
We just wrote a guide on using Sketchup to build parts for quadcopters. Check it out by clicking here!
References and further reading (many of the reviews we listed are linked above)