Totally puzzled

3D Printing can be a very puzzling process, but when it comes to the art and design of seemingly complicated 3D puzzles, the 3D Printer is helping people actualise many new designs that would just not be viable to produce in almost any other way. It’s a subject I have always had an interest in, but never looked at that closely, until now. Welcome to the world of the puzzler. For many years now 3D puzzles have been either hand made in the most fine materials or more recently CNC laser cut from sheets of plastic or wood. These are often straightforward modular objects requiring skill and patience to make, but ultimately, due to the manufacturing processes and complexity, only dedicated and skilled crafter's could design and make new and really complicated puzzles by hand. With the availability of desktop 3D printers, I started to wonder how they have impacted on the art of puzzle making. I found myself being drawn into the puzzle universe. And I can see the appeal it has, not only the design challenge, but in showing, sharing and selling fantastic puzzle works all around the world. Wouldn't you want to be known as a global Uber puzzler? Like anything these days when you decide to take a closer look at it, it’s always amazing to find entire industries in niche markets doing surprising amounts of business. You soon discover an international, sometimes secret world of shows, events and communities who follow, contribute and want to own all the latest new things being offered. And so my journey started. Wonderful sites like the puzzle-place show all manner of designs with great names like the dirty dog, 12 bastards and the impossible looking 97 Knots Octahedron, I’ll leave you to browse the sites at your leisure and wonder how you would go about designing some of these amazing models suitable for 3D printing. Some of these older style puzzle designs have been converted to 3D printable models; many, many more have not. I'm not totally sure where puzzle ‘law’ or etiquette sits in this regard, but if you do decide to translate or re-design an existing puzzle for 3D printing, it’s going to be a good idea to check with the original designer. And at least make sure you give credit for the original puzzle concept, before releasing or selling any models. On the other hand, you can always design your very own unique creations. While searching for 3D puzzle designs, I stumbled across a great software tool for both creating and helping solve puzzles - Burr Tools, by Andreas Rover is available for free download here. Burr Tools is an easy to use puzzle assembly and design package, it has a very good help system, so I won't turn this into a tutorial on how to use it. You should be able to experiment with the sample files and start to explore your own creations. You can also export your puzzle pieces to .STL format producing a file that can then be 3D printed. You will need to experiment with the bevel and offset export settings, this allows a loose or tight fit with the different puzzle parts. Depending on the size and number of parts I would recommend using a 0.15mm offset, print out two parts that fit together and check if it’s tight (increase offset value) or loose (decrease offset value). One of my favourite puzzle designers is Richard Gain. We have met up at various shows and I have printed a number of his puzzles over the years. Richard’s shop ‘microcubology’ on Shapeways can be found here Richard also has a collection up on Thingiverse to download and print, including some Burrtools designs you can load in and experiment with. If you look on any of the 3D file sharing sites, you will find a number of different 3D Printable puzzles to explore right now. The most desktop 3D print-friendly will not require the use of support materials, one of my favourites is the 'apparently impossible sphere puzzle' by Richard Gain using OpenSCAD. Another opensource 3D design tool. If you like programming, maths and can imagine 3D space well in your head it's a great and powerful platform for all sorts of 3D design. I printed these out way back in 2012 and my kids still have fun with them now. OpenSCAD is so powerful, with a few commands you could in theory turn almost any existing 3D model into this sort of puzzle. I'm not sure anyone ever printed something like it, but as an example joke Richard Gain posted this Impossible Venus de Milo image (above). It takes the existing interlocking puzzle piece set and cuts them out in the same form from the Venus head model. On the 3D printer side of things, I had the chance to talk to Threedy printers at the 2014 London 3D Printshow, they had puzzles on display and desktop 3D printers — specifically designed and optimised for puzzle printing. This is probably the only machine I am aware of that was designed and built specifically to make accurate puzzle for sale. That said, most, if not all, desktop 3D printers will also be able to print puzzles, but Threedy felt they needed to design their own machine for accuracy, control and long-term reliability. I can reliably report that they have indeed put a lot of effort into the design of this machine. It worked well and they started selling 3D printer kits and ready-built machines. It would be interesting to know if machine sales are now as popular as their puzzle sales. Emmanuel Carrillo recently posted a nice bear-shaped rubik’s cube inspired puzzle to (download here) Although this is a simple puzzle, it’s easy to 3D print and is a big hit with young kids! Emmanuel also provides a sticker design or they can even paint or decorate him after printing. Caption: Image by Emmanuel Carrillo - OzoBear puzzle I noticed some of the STL files report minor errors, but after a quick fix they printed out well in under four hours at full size, using a 25% infill, three outer shells and three solid layers. A really famous puzzler is Oskar van Deventer, who for the last 30 years has been designing and making puzzles. His website here and Shapeways shop show an astounding set of Rubik inspired designs. Some of his popular designs are now mass produced, but many more can still only be manufactured with 3D printing. Caption: Image from the Shapeways blog post about Oskar Embed: Oskar also holds the 2012 Guiness world record for his 17 x 17 x 17 cube design. You really don't want to get that one mixed up. Fleet Hower is another puzzle designer to watch. Fleet uses 3D printing for his Lock-Nesters designs. All these organic puzzle models make use of 3D printed support material, this must be removed before assembly. Caption: Albert - Bear Lock-Nesters puzzle images by Fleet Hower They are all manufactured on-demand by the 3D Hubs network, colour and size can be selected at checkout. Then someone, usually local to you will print the parts and deliver for you to enjoy. Whether you like puzzles or not, one thing this journey poignantly highlights is that 3D printing seems to be forever finding more and more applications and uses. We expect it to be used in the design and development phase, but more significantly and increasingly we are seeing direct use in the finished items for sale. And they can hold even higher values than hand crafted objects of the past. Time to stop. Step back, move away from the puzzle forums. That was a close one, I could feel the challenges of puzzle design starting to appeal to me. I certainly don’t have time for another hobby right now, I’ll make a quick escape and vow to return to the world of puzzles when I have more time… much, more time. Have you already printed out puzzles? Or now feel inspired to take on the challenge of designing a 3D printable puzzle? If you have any ideas or comments, do let me know below. While investigating 3D printed 3D puzzles, I found so many more sites, people and stories, far too many to add in here, it would go on for pages. If you want more on this subject, here are some more reading material links: - Pavel's puzzles Puzzlenation shapeways puzzle section Youmagine puzzles Puzzle Party And one that should not be missed is the very first crowd fabricated puzzle chair, by Joris Laarman Lab, here on Youmagine. Finally, Signe Brewster on Gigaom has a really great post here from a few years back, well worth a follow on read if you want even more puzzle fun. Until next time, puzzle — and print — on.

About Richard Horne

Richard Horne is well known in the 3D printing community as RichRap. Rich is a highly passionate advocate of 3D printing for all uses in industry, education and the desktop. Since joining the open-source maker movement and then the RepRap project in 2009, Rich has been blogging, developing and sharing ideas for the greater global interest in 3D printing.