3D printed "piranha plant" keycap.

3D printed “piranha plant” keycap.

The ability to customize products to suit your individual needs and aesthetic tastes has always been highly sought after, but for the most part if you want it, then you need to be willing to pay a premium for it. However, modern 3D printing technology has eliminated the cost barrier for most customization and introduced the ability to an ever expanding audience. One of the reasons that 3D printing technology has become so popular so quickly is its capability for instant and cost-free customization. While its primary use is for things like prototyping and product design, an entire generation of artists and artisans are discovering 3D printing and using it as a tool to make their own, unique creations.

As new advancements are made and technology evolves, it often changes the entire user experience. But for many people, a lot of the advancements alter the user experience too quickly, so they often revert back to older technologies that they see as of a higher quality or that provide a better experience. A common example would be people who prefer vinyl records over digital recordings. Another is the growing trend of purchasing mechanical keyboards rather than the more common, and less expensive, membrane keyboards. A mechanical keyboard has an actual, physical mechanical switch under each key, and it used to be the primary keyboard design until the membrane keyboard was developed. However, many users missed the ability to create their own keycaps, and the satisfying clickity clack of the keys while they use them.

Mechanical keyboards are popular among gamers, and those that enjoy the classic clickity clack sound.

Mechanical keyboards are popular among gamers, and those that enjoy the classic clickity clack sound. Users can also replace standard keycaps with custom-made keycaps like these 3D printer selections.

Generally users of mechanical keyboards choose them because they are considered more accurate and responsive, especially for PC gaming. But a growing number of users are choosing mechanical keyboards for aesthetic reasons, and for the fact that they also offer users the option to purchase customized keycaps, so they can have their own unique keyboard. For years the best way to obtain new keycaps was by finding artists who sell their own creations online, often creating them using traditional sculpting and casting methods. Naturally this is time consuming, and often quite expensive, but some of the examples of these “artisan keycaps” demonstrate how truly amazing they can look.

Traditionally made "artisan keycaps" can still do things that 3D printing can’t.

Traditionally made “artisan keycaps” can still do things that 3D printing can’t.

Recently there have been designers who have started using 3D design software and 3D printing to make some pretty cool 3D printed keycaps that can be just as unique. While it takes just as much artistry to design a 3D model of a replacement keycap, it often takes far less time than traditional methods. That means that 3D printed caps generally cost considerably less, often times costing as little as 25% of something that was hand sculpted and cast in plastic. And of course 3D printing technology offers designers more freedom when it comes to design, because it is capable of producing objects with more complex geometries than those that are made using the more traditional casting processes.

As with anything 3D printed, there are tradeoffs, of course. There are simply some things that 3D printers can’t do, and only artisanal methods will work. And unless the keycaps are printed using high quality, commercial-grade 3D printers from a service like Shapeways, the actual quality is going to be limited to what resolution the desktop 3D printer is capable of reaching. One of the benefits offered by the artisanal keycaps is the fact that there are only going to be a very small number of them available, often making them extremely unique and collectable. However, a 3D printed keycap can be acquired by anyone, which makes them more common and easier to get, two things that collectors rarely look for in things that they collect.

For fans of mechanical keyboards, there are pros and cons related to both types of keycaps, and in fact many users often purchase and enjoy both. Mechanical keyboard enthusiast Kyle Holgate wrote a great article about the various benefits and advantages of each method, and shows off some pretty great examples of custom keycaps in the process. You can read the entire article here. You can also see some amazing examples of artisan keycaps on Key Kollectiv and on the Hot Keys Project Facebook page. And you can see some great 3D printable keycaps available for sale over on Shapeways from the Gizmo Bazaar. Are you in the market for one of these? Discuss further in the 3D Printed Keyboards forum over at 3DPB.com.

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