3D Printing Keyguards - An Epic Journey
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
There's something about keyguards that is both scary and exciting. Over the years these thoughts would run through my head, "What if I order it and Billy doesn't need it?" or "What if I order the keyguard and I messed up the dimensions and it doesn't fit properly?" Another nagging thought was always, "OMG, there's so many options!" In the grand scheme of things, keyguards are not the most expensive part of an AAC system, but when you're paying between $50-$100 a piece they certainly can add up, especially when you're supporting multiple students who all have different setups, cases, and keyguard attachment needs.
For all of the above reasons I dreamily longed for a way to make my own keyguards. My journey to this goal first began with the introduction to printing 3D symbols from Project Core. I had been supporting a middle school student in a technology education (Tech Ed) classroom. This classroom had several 3D printers and I approached the teacher and asked if I emailed him three files if he'd print them for me. They turned out perfect and I instantly knew that I wanted a 3D printer for myself. I began researching and learning more about 3D printers. Now, I'll also add that I'm fortunate to be married to a very techie engineer who designs and builds large machinery, so my conversations were also guided by my loving husband. What I learned:
You want a printer that is consistent and doesn't need to be adjusted constantly. Why is that? You can buy a lower cost 3D printer, but you often have to do a lot of adjustments to the printer in order to get it to print consistently. Additionally, you need to understand things like "leveling the bed" and "adjusting the z-offset." These things are important because essentially what you do is heat up a material, which is referred to as filament, (I print many of my keyguards with Poly Lactic Acid-PLA filament) and then the small head/nozzle will extrude the material in layers, building it up layer after layer. One analogy is to imagine it like the coil pots that elementary students often make. The pot gets taller and taller with each coil that the student adds on top. This is similar to how 3D printers make keyguards. I've printed keyguards that have 25 layers all the way up to 52 layers. The layers are usually printed at 0.20 mm thick. To get an idea of how thick that is, just look at 1 mm on a ruler and imagine that 1mm broken up into 5 equal parts, so only 1/5 of that millimeter is a layer of your keyguard! If I have a keyguard that is 5 mm tall, I would have 5 mm x 5 (layers/mm)=25 layers. In order to get a good consistent print the things that I mentioned above need to be aligned precisely every time that you 3D print. Another way to understand 3D printing is to think about graphing. Most of us are familiar with x and y coordinates. 3D printers utilize these coordinates and also include a z coordinate, which is the height of the object. Design software will take these three coordinates and send them to the printer so that your printer knows exactly where to extrude the material you are 3D printing on each layer. To learn more about the the x, y, and Z axes watch this quick YouTube clip from Prusa.
Below you will see a YouTube clip of a Time Lapse video of a keyguard printed for a 9th generation iPad being used with LAMP Words for Life in an HDE case.
You will need design software, because let's face it, I'm an speech/language pathologist and not a programmer! I wouldn't know the first thing about how to tell my 3D printer exactly where to print or where to start with the software. Here is were Volksswitch comes into play. Ken Hackbarth, an amazingly generous man, created a free program that allows you to input the dimensions of your case, the specific generation of iPad or dimensions of the device you're using, and information about the grid size of the communication app into a software program to build your keyguard. There is no reason to even take up blog space explaining to you how the software works, because Ken's website is so comprehensive that you can learn everything you need to directly from him. To find the directions you can go to to Volkswitch.org, select Volks-Devices, and Customizable 3D Printable Keyguard. Ken has pictures, videos, and written directions that explain every single customization you can make to a keyguard. A few things to note. You can customize using two different options: Thingiverse, which is a website where people can share 3D printed files or OpenSCAD. OpenSCAD may seem intimidating at first, but it is worth playing around with and figuring it out. Here's a pro-tip. Even if you don't have a 3D printer, you can start by installing OpenSCAD, watching the videos on the Volksswitch website and begin playing around with it by entering in dimensions. OpenSCAD has a visualizer that makes changes immediately as you enter in dimensions so you can see what happens when you make changes to your keyguard.
If you're new to 3D printing, consider finding a mentor. If you work in the schools, you'll likely find 3D printers in your library, technology education department, STEAM/STEM schools, or your technology department. Fellow teachers are amazing and they will want to help you learn, it's ingrained in their very being! If you don't work in the schools you can find community programs that also have 3D printers. Many local libraries, community STEAM/STEM programs, and universities also have printers. For example, in Green Bay we have a community program called the Einstein Project. They offer a monthly or yearly membership which allows you to use their MakerSpace, which includes access to 3D printers and laser cutters. They also offer classes to help you learn how to use these materials. I am fortunate to be married to my mentor, I'd also recommend that option, too! ;)
Expect and plan on making mistakes! One of the best things about 3D printed keyguards is that they are very affordable (after your investment in a printer, of course!) My Prusa software will calculate the amount of filament that I use and give me an estimated cost for printing.
It's usually under $2.00, so don't be afraid to make mistakes and experiment! I've made a lot of keyguards, and not every one turns out the way that I expect or want. Sometimes it may be the calibration of my 3D printer or it may be the numbers I entered into OpenSCAD. One feature of OpenSCAD and the customizer is the ability to print just the first two layers. (Remember, I have my settings set to 0.2mm thick, so that would be a a test print that is only 0.4mm thick.) This allows me to see if I have all of the boxes aligned properly and if I need to change any measurements or settings in the customizer before spending 4-5 hours printing the entire keyguard (Note, I've done this before and it makes you sad when you find things aren't aligned the way you hoped!)
Don't be afraid to experiment and play around. I've also learned that the best way to actually see features I like and prefer is to make keyguards with varying options or customizations. I've tried almost all of Volksswitch's attachment methods, and now have my favorites or know why I'd choose one method over another. I've experimented with changing the height, thickness, and slope of the rails (rails are what make up the boxes of your grid-they are horizontal and vertical.) For example, I've changed whether I expose the status bar (where the time and battery indicator is on an iPad), or the upper command bar (where the menu buttons are located in TouchChat and LAMP WFL.)
Here's another pro tip for you: Download the keyguard data form from Thingiverse and document that changes you are making. Once you have printed a few you will start to forget what changes or features you changed! It's great to be able to look back and know exactly what dimensions and layout features you had enabled as you experiment and figure out what your students/clients need. Additionally, make sure when you make your keyguards that you have a way of (1) identifying which keyguard corresponds with which data form so that you can compare your keyguards, (2) naming your files so that if a keyguard is broken (they're very durable, so it doesn't happen often) you can go back and find your correct GCode file to upload to your printer and reprint easily. Ken has many helpful ideas for managing keyguards and I'd highly recommend investing some time learning about this right from the start!
Tips for purchasing a 3D printer:
Purchase a printer that has good tech support and is known to be reliable, not needing a lot of adjustments. You can go with a 3D printer that is cheaper ($200-$300) but those are known for needing a lot of adjustments that I mentioned in bullet number 1. If you're a techie person that can do that, then by all means save yourself some money. My time is valuable and I don't have a lot of time to be constantly adjusting, so I went with a printer that is known to be consistent.
If you're a novice, buy whatever printer you have support for. After purchasing my printer for Building AAC, I quickly decided that I wanted one for our Assistive Technology Department at school. The Technology Integrator that helped me through the process stated we had many different kids of printers in our district, and suggested that we purchase what I was comfortable with, in my case that was the same printer I had at home. However, if you have a mentor or just one model of printer in your district, go with the printer that you can get support or mentorship using.
Consider your needs. Printers come in different sizes. You'll want to consider the size of the bed and how big the printing surface is. If you're printing keyguards for an 12.9 inch iPad Pro, you're going to need a printer with a larger printing bed.
One feature that makes printing keyguards a little easier is having a removeable printing surface. Your keyguard will stick to the surface of the sheet, so if you can remove that metal sheet that it's printing on you can get the keyguard to pull off easily without worrying that you'll damage your printer or keyguard.
Does the manufacturer offer firmware updates to your printer, which shows their continued dedication to making their product better? What software is needed to print to your 3D printer, is it included, and is their support for learning how to use it? For example, in OpenSCAD you will render your file and then export it as an STL file. I then take the STL file and import it to my Prusa Slicer software. I adjust my print settings for my 3D printer in the Slicer software and then export the G-Code (which is the format that my 3D printer needs) to an SD Card that is inserted into my 3D printer. The software can be just as important as the 3D printer!
What types of filament can you use to print your keyguards. The two types that I've used are PLA and TPU (this is a somewhat flexible filament that can bend-it's likely what your soft phone cases are made out of!) Not all printers support all types of filament.
What printer do I use?
There are a lot of printers out there, and I'd recommend considering all the points above; however, I know I'll get questions about the printer that I purchased, so here it is:
I love everything about this printer. It has been a great model to learn on, and the support materials have been incredibly helpful. It is a very popular 3D printer, so between their website and YouTube you can find a lot of support. Back to my helpful husband, he wanted to purchase the kit that you put together yourself. It did take him an entire day to do and being an engineer he has a good understanding of the mechanical workings. He was glad that he did this, because he really learned how all of the pieces worked together. The book of instructions and video instructions were very helpful, so it can be done. When purchasing this same printer for school, we purchased it fully assembled. Again, time factored into this decision along with my skillset. Our school printer was shipped from the Czech Republic, where Prusa is located, to Green Bay, Wisconsin, so I'm sure it encountered a few bumps along the way. I ran the setup wizard which calibrated the axes and did a perfect test print. I was ready to print a keyguard within 30 minutes without any major calibrations.
Other materials that you will want to consider when purchasing: you will need filament. There are a lot of local sources and you even buy PLA from Amazon. I use Hatchbox and Mika3D PLA which is sold on Amazon in a variety of colors. Read reviews and find a filament that works well for your printer.
Volksswitch has a nice section on recommendations and learning more about 3D printing. Empower yourself by learning as much as you can! If you check out the "In the News" heading you will also see links to webinars from fellow Makers such as Gemma White's presentation from AAC in the Cloud, and presentations that Ken has done for Closing the Gap and others!
Expand your professional learning community:
Good luck in your journey, and I hope you get as much enjoyment out of making keyguards and 3D printing as I do!
I may do a series on this topic, so if there's anything that you'd like to know more about please make sure to leave a comment or contact me directly!