Summer 2013 update: I reprinted this decoder wheel in Stainless steel for a cost including shipping of $28.30. Very happy with the quality and feel of this material, very hard to tell that this is made via 3D printing

I've wanted to try 3D printing for quite some time but I also didn't want to spend a bunch of money on it. So when I found out about Shapeways.com and how I could use the free 3D drawing tool Sketchup to create 3D printed objects at a reasonable price, I was in!

What to Create?
One of my hobbies is Geocaching, so when it came to choosing something to create, I decided a coder/decoder wheel would be neat. This is a little desk toy which makes it easy to work with the ROT13 encryption commonly found on geocaching.com logs (but I really just wanted another cool toy to display on my desk :-) )

This Instructable will:
  • Describe 3D Printing, Shapeways.com and Google Sketchup
  • Walk you through the steps of creating a 3D CAD style drawing (including installing some required plugins)
  • Walk you through the steps of exporting, uploading and ordering your 3D printed design
  • Give you some additional background info and references on my experiences with 3D printing.
  • I'll also provide you with the google Sketchup design so you can get a headstart and customize it to your liking
Let's design and print something!

Step 1: Get Started with 3D Printing

3D Printing What is It?

Remember the replicator from Star Trek? Personnel could press a button and out would pop food, spare star ship parts or other everyday objects, amazing! Well technology is not ready yet to allow us to manipulate molecular structure at this level, but 3D Printing is the next best thing.

3D printing involves using a machine that looks like a matrix printer or scanner gone crazy.
The machine takes a design file as input and through an additive process builds a three dimensional object.
3D printing is now accessible enough so that nearly anyone can design a 3D object and upload the design to a site like Shapeways.com, submit credit card information and receive a physical 3D copy of their design in the mail.

It's important to remember that 3D printing is an additive process. It's not removing things as is done with a lathe or a CNC machine.
Here's a video from Wikipedia that shows 3D Printing in Action

Think of the useful things that can be created with a 3D printer. I've heard of examples from:
  • Repair an old screen door by 3D printing a plastic piece that can no longer be ordered.
  • Create custom game pieces for homemade board games
  • Custom cases for your Cell Phone or Raspberry Pi
  • Lego pieces that are not possible any other way
  • There are even food 3D printers including a 3D Chocolate Printer
  • Create a new pair of sandals for a child out of the recycled plastic from last year's pair
3D printers have reached a price where a home consumer can consider buying one, some examples include:
  • Makerbot Replicator
  • Cube 3D
  • Some 3D printers come in kits and are designed so that once assembled they can produce a large percentage of the pieces required to build another 3D printer!
Regardless how inexpensive the 3D printers are, the cheapest way to try 3D printing is to use an online service such as shapeways.com. On my first effort with Shapeways.com I created the "Caesar Cipher Decoder Ring" seen on the cover of this Instructable.
When I submitted my order I used the least expensive material available and a also ordered a "Sample Material Kit" (shown below). The Sample Kit allowed me and my friends to see what some of the more expensive materials are like, and it comes with a $25 store credit. (notice how one of my friends was a little too rough with the frosted Ultra Detail material) 
As part of putting together this Instructable, I'm doing a redesign and creating Version 2 of the Code Wheel.

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