How To 3D Print a Laptop

Meet Pi-Top, a laptop you can 3D print all by your yourself.

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Sep 25 2014, 9:00pm

All images courtesy Pi-Top

It's an irony of computing history that the individuals who formed home brew computer clubs (Apple, Microsoft) in the 1970s, when it was all about DIY, ended up building computers and software that most people now use, keeping them hooked on their products as though they were drugs. 

These home brew computer geeks were the first "makers." Now, things are coming full circle, with the maker movement empowering people to build their own computers, and giving them the tools to make things more easily than ever.

In addition to Kano, a computer kit that allows people to build a case, select its color, build a speaker, and connect it so that they can begin coding, we can add a new entrant to the "build your own computer" trend: Pi-Top

The big difference between the two products? Pi-Top owners can 3D print their laptop. 

While one could critique the Pi-Top kit as little more than a predictable outgrowth of the 3D printing trend, at worst it's a pretty neat idea. But, how easy is it to actually 3D print a laptop? I put these questions to Pi-Top co-founders Jesse Lozano and Ryan Dunwoody, and they gave me a kind of how-to for 3D printing your own laptop.

For starters, each Pi-Top Kit comes equipped with an injection-moulded case and 3D printer STL files compatible for all print bed sizes. Pi-Top also supplies printed circuit boards, a battery, keyboard, trackpad, 13.3" HD LCD screen, WiFi adapter, DC wall plug, and other essential odds and ends. It also comes with complete build instructions. The kit should cost under $300, though the final price hasn't yet been set.

The obvious catch here is that to print the Pi-Top, users will have to own or have access to a 3D printer. To make the first prototype case, the Pi-Top creators used a Rocstock V2 Max Kit, which costs about $1,000. The downside, all told, is that the final costs of printing a Pi-Top could actually be a bit more expensive than purchasing a Macbook Air ($1,200). As 3D printers get cheaper and more widely available (and begin making things that are actually useful), though, so too should the process of printing a Pi-Top or other 3D printable laptops.

For now, Pi-Top's founders are hoping the kit's aesthetic thrill and learning processes will inspire a new generation of makers. Their gambit is that the skills required to print and assemble a Pi-Top will translate to skills needed to code (in Python) and build other products. In other words, once users get a taste of 3D printing and assembling their very own laptop, it'll spur their imagination to bring that maker thinking to other technology.

When it comes to those unwilling or unable to 3D print on their own, Lozano said that 3D printed cases will be available to purchase and ship from iMakr's My Mini Factory. The company is also in talks with a number of other American and European 3D printing companies to print cases on demand. Another alternative, Lozano said, would be to take the Pi-Top print files to a "maker space" like London Hackspace where you can learn to use and rent out 3D printers.

The Pi-Top case can be printed in small pieces and assembled. If a user has a large print bed, Lozano said they could print the whole laptop in it. Originally, the Pi-Top was printed vertically, but now it can also be done horizontally and at shallow angle surfaces. Unfortunately, print times can take upwards of 50 hours, according to Dunwoody, which dramatically increases the potential for error.

"To counteract this," Dunwoody said, "we had to take shifts through the night to monitor the print so that any jams, blockages, filament entanglement, and so on, could be dealt with before it caused problems. The case has now been upgraded so that it can be printed much easier with minimal maintenance and a much shorter print time."

Lazano said that the cases are very robust and good for everyday use. But, as with any laptop, he wouldn't suggest dropping it.

"The 3D printed case whilst durable (our first prototype has been used by over 400 people—including young children—and is still working without a single repair required) will be more fragile than it's injection molded counterpart," Lozano said. "The type of filament you use also plays a role in the durability as different filaments give different properties to the object you are printing."

If you're a little worried about getting Razberry Pi to work with Pi-Top's printed hardware, Lozano emphasized that the kit was built with beginners in mind. No soldering is required to build Pi-Top, so a beginner should expect to be able to complete the kit in about three hours.

While one might think a 3D printed laptop is merely a low cost alternative to pricier hardware (if you already own a printer), or a cheap thrill like selecting a colorful iMac, it would be a bit misguided. Pi-Top's creators have something else in mind.

The Pi-Top team believes that by learning and understanding electronics, printed circuit boards, and 3D printing in general, Pi-Top owners will be able to design and make their own products. And so the Pi-Top team's focus is on teaching "transferable skills."

Beginners will also learn the basics of Python coding. The Pi-Top is also designing a "gamified learning experience" that will teach a beginner the above skills. Looking toward the future, the Pi-Top team could very well be laying the groundwork for DIY makers to design and assemble their very own original laptops from the ground up, not just from a kit. 

The days of home brew, DIY computer making are back, but in mutated form.