Cardboard Cell Phone Case


In case you haven’t noticed, I tend to work with cardboard. It’s a cheap material, there’s always some around, and quite frankly, the cardboard box is one of the marvels of the modern world. (Seriously, think about UPS, modern shipping and packaging…)

In fact, this summer, I even built an entire kid’s playhouse from cardboard. It’s also great as a 3d/practical stand-in for items that may otherwise be heavy, dangerous, or impractical. (See the video on C.A.D. at: )

So, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that I just created a cell phone case from cardboard!

One of my current “back-burner” projects to create a specialty smart-phone case. I don’t want to give away the awesome “bonus feature” it will have, but to start with, I just needed to design a basic case. I had kicked around a few ideas, such as 3D printing it. But that didn’t turn out so well. Of course there I was using somebody else’s design, which just was NOT optimized for my 3D printer. Plus, I really don’t have any 3D modeling skills (yet. I’m learning!)

I DO have access to the Laser Cutter at the Milwaukee Makerspace. Which got me thinking that maybe I could create a laminated case, based on several layers of laser-cut plastic. (The concept is similar to this mini-computer case.)

However, I’m still really just in the planning stages of this project, and the Makerspace is nearly two hours of travel round-trip for me. So, how can I keep prototyping my project with just a few spare minutes at home? The answer is cardboard.

Among carboard’s many great qualities: I already have it; I can cut it with a knife, razor, or scissors; it’s a 3D tactile material; and I can cut and use it RIGHT NOW.

I had already designed a basic case in Adobe Illustrator, by drawing over the top of an image of the iPhone I downloaded from Apple. Would you believe that the radius of the default setting of the “ROUNDED RECTANGLE” Tool is EXACTLY the same as the corners of the iPhone? Who would have thought? But it did make it easy to layout a front, back, and middle of a layered case.

I printed out the images onto regular 8.5×11 computer printer paper, cut them out, and then traced them onto some junk cardboard. I then cut the cardboard with a scissors and exacto-knife. I stacked the two “middle rings” around the phone, and sandwiched it between the front and back pieces.

Now all I needed was some way to hold it all together. If this were some sort of final project, I would likely glue the layers together, but as it was, all I really needed some something simple and temporary. Sticking with my office supplies theme, I grabbed two rubber bands, and slipped them around the cardboard near the top and bottom.

In only a few minutes, I went from an idea, to a drawing, to a real-world three-dimentional object, all WITHOUT a 3D-printer, a laser-cutter, or any other modern micro-manufacturing machinery.

While this was just a simple little mock-up, I was impressed with how well it turned out using only low-tech, on-hand materials.

Do you have a project in mind that you want to work on? Could you find a thrifty and low-tech way to do it using simple, recycled, or salvaged materials? Give it a shot, you might be surprised at how well it works out!


Easy and Free 3D

Its no huge secret that learning to make something in a 3D CAD program has been a bit challenging before now. Programs such as Blender are quite powerful, but the learning curve is a bit steep and you could spend days working in tutorials before you actualy got around to making anything. Well, the world turns and the people with the big brains are slowly learning that the best way to get more people involved is to create tools that don’t require a masters in computer design to understand.

In the old days, you needed a high end workstation with advanced graphics capabilities to do this kind of work. I can remember going to my friends work place and marveling at his 386 workstation built into a desk with a pen based touch screen. These days we can do so much more, and in a web browser. The recommendations below won’t meet everyone’s needs, but it’s a great starting point to learn what works and what does not. Its also hella fun.

Back in November I bought a Printrbot during their Kickstarter campaign. Since then I have been trying out different combinations of programs and processes for generating 3D designs and slicing them for use on the printer. I had a short list of requirements for things I absolutely needed:

  • Short learning curve, nothing overly complicated. I just need to make straight 3D designs. I don’t need textures, colors or animation.
  • Free. I was looking to keep this as low cost as possible. I am a huge fan of open source solutions.
  • Ability to export STL files.

I ran through Blender, 123D, Google (now Trimble) sketchup and a few other programs. They were all quite functional, but each had some small quirks or non-intuitive interface problems and I was routinely somewhat frustrated and defeated. I kept poking around and finally stumbled upon a winning combination.

TinkerCad is a free 3d design app. It runs within your browser and has a strong preference for Chrome. All your designs are assembled with a simple tool set and saved to the web automatically. The site allows you to download your designs as STL, VRML or 2D SVG. It also allows you to imidiately submit your designs to several 3D printing services such as Shapeways and Sculpteo.

Although the tools are somewhat limited, you are able to do a surprising amount of real work. All of the tools are quite intuitive and I was able to jump in without needing to run through the tutorial. In fact, my 12 year old daughter jumped in after I was done and was designing her own things without any input from me. I’m going to be needing a lot more filament at this rate. The ruler and measurement tools are better than any other program I tried. In less than 20 minutes I was able to assemble a small robot design.

Once I had the design, I was able to easily export the STL file and immediately print one using the printrbot. I added a small raft to the back and drilled out a hole for a button. This is now going to be my new doorbell. I also added a few LEDs to the back for lighting.

Once I was done, I was really excited by the prospect of actually being able to make virtual things. I decided to see what else I could do. One dream has been to find a way to easily create cardboard sliced designs. A fairly new app from Autodesk called 123D MAKE can do just that. It’s not open source, but it is a free 100+ MB download. I was able to take the STL file I downloaded and upload it to the 123D MAKE program. From within the tool, I was able to set material thickness, slice type, output format, stage size and dozens of other options. I was then able to export EPS files containing all the pieces laid out and numbered for assembly.

I was able to take these over to the laser cutter and cut some slices from cardboard I had laying around. I assembled them per directions and wound up with this bad boy.

If you don’t have a laser cutter, you can always just print the design and cut the pieces by hand.

I think we are seeing start of a huge shift in production of one-off items. 3D printers are getting cheaper, and more importantly, printing services are able to produce items in almost any material you can imagine. As the design tools get easier and easier to use you are going to see these services become more and more prevalent. Need a replacement part? Print it yourself. Have an idea for a game, have it printed, boxed and shipped overnight. Its the definition of a disruptive technology.

Now, go make something!


Free 3D design web app