Nokia had a nice idea recently - to open themselves up to the world of Makers by freely distributing the STL files that allow printing one's own case and spare parts for the Lumia 820. Too bad the designs weren't technically up to par. The risk of a total fail, however, has been mitigated thanks to the strong community of Makers and Nokia fans.

When Nokia made the model to 3D print spare parts for the Lumia 820 available online, the news spread through the web like wildfire, both on specialized websites and in mainstream outlets, as it is both interesting and trendy. Nokia also played a strong role in promoting this move, pointing out the benefits of 3D printing (that we already know). Amongst them, the availability of STL files not just for spare parts but for the cell phone's protective case is an invitation to creativity, since, being an accessory, one buys a case not only when it breaks but also just to change every once and a while.

All this ought to be the perfect set up for a digital fairytale that ends well. You easily download the STL files for the Lumia 820's case and side buttons, which can easily be opened with any 3D design program, including SketchUp, as long as it has the plugin to import this file type. Then you can do whatever you want before sending it off to the 3D printer. The perfect Maker will add his or her own touch at this final stage, and Nokia has encouraged this creativity by asking people to tell the story of this experience.

So, it's all great, right? Is this really the beginning of the revolution touted by many websites, the tip of the Makers' iceberg? Not really. Nokia deserves recognition for having taken a first step towards a production model that many still think is best suited to sci-fi fiction, but unfortunately from a technical point of view, the idea backfired. The problem is that the files distributed by the Finnish company do not actually result in the creation, by anyone, of a resistant and functional plastic case.

Many websites and Makers have revealed this problem. The staff at The Verge passed the files over to two London-based 3D printing services (3D Print UK and Inition), and both tests resulted in the same evaluation: the thickness of the case, as indicated in the files, is only 0.6mm, which is insufficient to produce a resistant case using commonly available 3D printers. For this reason, the parts subjected to most use break almost immediately (buttons and the area around them, and the top of the case that experiences pressure when removing the phone). Both printing services suggest that probably the files had been prepared not for 3D printing but for injection molding.

Some doubts have also been expressed about the presence of the Nokia files on Thingiverse. It might be possible to print the files using a Makerbot Replicator 2 to make a "fabulous case that fits perfectly" as the manufacturer announces, but even on Thingiverse it's indicated that the STL files have been optimized. The technicians at The Verge suggest that this wouldn't be an easy modification to work on a specific printer - they tested the file with an expensive Zprinter 450 at Inition, which ought to produce much better results than the Replicator 2, and the final product still resulted imperfect.

Nonetheless, it IS possible to get a good case out of the STL file distributed by Nokia thanks to the more profound analysis done by by the Belgian i.materialise, who not only tested the file as-is with the most common materials, but also tried it with other materials, in the end modding the project to create a really functional version. The video below shows their first efforts, resulting in the fragility described by The Verge, and pointing out how the simple printing of the case with integrated buttons generates a useless product (the printers contacted by The Verge in fact printed the buttons separately).

Nokia Lumia 3D Printed Cover from Materialise NV on Vimeo.

This second film shows the results obtained by printing with more complex materials, which may be more robust but also too rigid. Finally, with further modification to the Nokia file, they managed to print a resistant and flexible case with functional buttons.

Nokia Lumia 3D Printed Cover Part 2 from Materialise NV on Vimeo.

So, if we want to extract a moral from our story, probably it's the one we hear technicians say all the time: don't move too quickly - check all the details and don't assume anything. In this case, trouble came from too little knowledge of consumer 3D printing vs. that available to the larger manufacturing sector. Again, Nokia deserves to be lauded for having tried, and hey, maybe even for having provided  an interesting technical challenge for the world of Makers, who took it up and resolved it with a few clicks of the mouse.


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