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3D Printed Tape Measure

Going off the success of my 3D printed dial calipers, I decided to try to print something even more elaborate. But what to print? I contemplated several options but ultimately decided to print a tape measure.

Originally I didn't think a tape measure would be that interesting... I mean, it doesn't even have gears. Once I started piecing it together in my mind and determining the acceptable "cool factor", I realized that the parts count alone was skyrocketing. My calipers had 9 pieces, this tape measure would have well over 100... Now things were getting interesting.

I decided to attempt this based on the parts count and the fact that, if successful, I would be able pull out over 4ft of tape from something about 3" sq. Also, I had no better ideas at the time.

I designed the tricky parts first, then I printed little test pieces here and there to validate the design before integrating them together. Right around the time I starting adding all the cutouts in the main body (for cleaning purposes), it started to look pretty cool.

The entire tape measure would be printed already assembled, wound up (pictured above), with support material. The support material is necessary to support all the complex geometry and separate pieces. Support material will be in every void not already occupied with the printing plastic (UV hardened resin, actually). This support material needs to be cleaned out after printing, which is what all the cutouts are for. For me, not being artistic in any way, adding lots and lots of cutouts in a way that didn't look stupid was the hardest part of the design.

Now for some tech specs! There are 114 parts in this tape measure, 52" of tape links labeled every 1" with graduations down to 1/8", a lock for the tape, a belt clip, and a fold-out crank with free-spinning handle to reel the tape back in. Measurement accuracy over the 52" is about 1/16". The belt clip, lock, and crank all have flexible features on which stress analysis was performed to be sure they wouldn't break. The printed material is fairly brittle which means if it breaks it does so like glass. Unless the stresses in the material are low and are distributed properly it will break.

The crank has an over center cam-like feature and hard snaps in both the open and closed positions to make it bias towards those. The tape lock knob has a detent (visible on the backside) to make it lock in the unlocked position so it doesn't rattle around and lock up the tape when not in use.

I would really have liked to print a one-piece flexible tape or even a spring retractable tape but due to limitations in printing technology and material I couldn't do that. I was also resistant to turning this into a giant research project. Springs are one of the things that are difficult to print, especially in a brittle material. Springs with a preload are, as far as I know, impossible to print.

In this case, if I were to print a retraction spring, it would have to be a very large spring that would have to work over 10+ rotations and not be susceptible to material creep. Not to mention it would have to provide enough force over those 10+ rotations to reel the tape back in. That is not an easy problem to solve.

The tape itself can also be considered a spring; assuming it's the same curved cross-section profile as a normal steel tape. If the tape was printed outside of the tape measure body, out of a flexible material, and that material wasn't very creep sensitive it would be possible to print a one-piece tape that was rigid when extended outside the tape measure body. The printer required to do this would have to be very large since the tape would have to be fully extended during printing.

The other, simpler, option is to just print a simple ribbon of tape out of a flexible material. Since the tape would be flexible it could be printed as one piece coiled up inside the tape measure body. The downside to this method is that it requires the use of 3 different materials during printing: rigid modeling material, flexible modeling material, and support material. There are only a couple printers in the world that can currently do this. Moreover, my preference is to keep my designs uni-material (not including support material) so they can be printed on a wider range of printers. 

All that being said, I still think it would be cool to further investigate some kind of spring retraction option.

For the curious, this tape measure was printed on an Objet Eden 3D printer.

And lastly: Yes. This is in Imperial units. Why? Because this is America. We are simultaneously innovative and stubborn. Mostly though, it's what I am used to. Although on the small scales, I greatly prefer SI units. ... Ok, I just looked up Imperial units and came across some of the lesser known ones... All I can say is wow...


  1. I'm really interested if our 3D printers would be able to print this design. Could you contact me at

  2. This is AWESOME! I'll do my best to light up my small sphere of the socnetsphere for ya.

  3. I'm really interested in the printing in one-piece trick. Could you please share the model file?

  4. I admit that this is really cool. I am curious, did you print it with the tape coiled and extended outside of the body? How did seperation work for the internal parts from support? You do amazing stuff, if you don't mind would you consider perhaps time-lapsing the printing on your next amazing creation?

  5. Thanks for enhancing our knowledge in context of printed tapes. You have well described it. I really appreciate it.

  6. this is really cool. will you be able to share the stl file on this design? my contact is

  7. hi! i like to buy one and if you share de design file is welcome, please contact me

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