We Need to Talk about 3D Printed Housings

Formnext Germany

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Product housings are kind of boring. Generally rectangular, they’re just the type of thing that looks like it could be made well via laser cutting or some other process. There are no amazing weight saving, Giger-esque parts with lattices, sci-fi movie curves, or sponge-like foam. There’s no controlled porosity or variable infill. No super cool texture that only additive manufacturing (AM) can make. Instead, what we get is a box.

Electronic housing part, with ventilation slits and openings for cables and electronics, printed on Pro Asiga 4K with Henkel’s Loctite 3843

In the AM sector, businesses are currently all about orthopedics, commercial aviation, space propulsion, satellites, military, conformal cooling for molds and other applications. In reality, however, a lot of companies are also 3D printing out boxes, but they are loathe to discuss it. Housings are 3D printing’s least favorite PR stepchild for some reason.

Maybe they’re not pretty, cool, or don’t look extremely cutting-edge. A lot of these boxes can’t be shown off because they could hint at new form factors, phones, electronics and more. Also, many boxes are the result of someone having to hack together a basket of electronics to solve an unanticipated problem. In that case, it means that the box is a secret because it’s kind of embarrassing.

Other housings are temporary: a monitoring system for a new tool or a sensor for a temporary problem. They’re housings are experiments, something that, 20 versions later, will morph into a new electronic device. Still other housings are simply there to encompass internal working before the engineer moves on to the next project. Yet other housings are just a hack the maintenance department has done which now has to be made fabrikfähig.

Sometimes, there’s some kind of regulation that means that an improvised duck tape solution to a problem has to be codified and packaged in some way for management. Or, for safety’s sake, it would be a good idea to enclose some wires.

Maybe a housing is just for a project on vibration, noise, or gas that will never be used again. Later on, it will become a standard part that will live on deep in the bowels of a machine tool.

Sometimes a 3D printed housing morphs into a new version of a product entirely. It could be a prototype for a much fancier, properly “designed” item that will be made later on. Often, this is a “from the factory floor to the company” item, in which a single engineer prototypes and builds something that is then evolved by others into something more permanent.

A housing might be an emergency good that has to be made to solve an urgent problem quite rapidly. Maybe it’s an afterthought that itself is forgotten. At times, a housing is a feature that is not incorporated into a machine but  added to the next version later on. It could also be a hack to test new functionality on an old machine before that functionality becomes the basis for a new version or model.

Sometimes the customer wants something and this gets quickly implemented in a 3D printed housing before being released more widely. Often, these housings are super top secret. They’re also pet projects, dreams, and Hail Mary, long-shot inventions. And, if it’s a blue sky invention, something that doesn’t exist at all, then it will come in a 3D printed housing, as well.

In a world where the concept of a remote control was still being invented, then one of the first remote controls would come in a 3D printed housing. That one career-making invention will be in a 3D printed housing today. Shaking in backpacks or cradled like small children on the way to venture capital or university funding bodies, a lot of housings will become key innovations for the future. The crazy stuff, the out-there stuff, the stuff we could never get corporate to fund it—that will come in 3D printed housings, as well.

In the maker community, the Altoid box was an initial project box for many things. 3D printed housings serve the same purpose. They are acting as the casings for hope, innovation, and future growth. But, we almost never talk about 3D printed housings.

This article was triggered by someone posting a 3D printed housing on LinkedIn, so there are people and companies that do mention them. However, given their extensive use, we talk about them remarkably little.

The 3D printing of housings differs wildly per company. Electronics, machines builders and complex engineering firms produce more housings many more than other businesses, of course. Defense firms, those with a safety tightrope to walk, engineer-driven companies, and those where bottom up ideas are celebrated all also use a lot 3D printed housings.

Sometimes it’s confusing as 3D printed housings are very popular at one firm and almost absent from other firms. At some companies, they are strewn on desks, while at others they are locked away.

I know that as a marketer, housings may not seem very sexy. They also don’t seem to have any of those 3D printing advantages we keep repeating like a sad Greek chorus. However, they are huge volumes of 3D printed housings made by companies inside companies. We don’t write a lot of white papers, conduct a lot of experiments, or engineer a lot of materials specifically for housings.

I know people that would completely lose it about a 3D printed housing, given the right RF shielding, electrical insulation, or non-permeable material. However, because we don’t talk much about 3D printed housings, the industry isn’t stimulated enough to make them. We also don’t inspire people to really use 3D printed housings to their fullest advantage. There could be a lot more happening out there if a lot more people were helped to 3D print their first housings.

I know they’re not the super most exciting application in the world, but it is something that works. 3D printed housings are some of the most prevalent 3D printed parts in some companies. 3D printed housings are a success story that we should celebrate. We should celebrate 3D printed housings because they work and because they make 3D printing more valuable for firms.

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