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Building the ultimate USB charging tower (concept prototype)

We use a 3D printer and a speciality photo printer to help create a charging station capable of charging 40 USB devices at once. And still, it's not quite enough.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

I have been accruing camera gear and digital gear for years, all of which needs to be charged. As I added more and more to it, the makeshift charging station I'd set up got messier and messier, to the point where I wound up with random gear charging all over the house and some stuff that was missing in action. It was basically out of control.

I wanted to rebuild that charging station to be something truly usable. As the accompanying video shows, I took a prototype approach because I needed it quickly. My first thought was to build a whole new unit, build it out of wood, put it on wheels, maybe CNC some of it, build special custom drawers, all that kind of stuff. But that's a three to six-month project, given the amount of time I have, and I wanted to build something in a week or two, spending 20 or 30 minutes a day.

That necessitated using what I had but making it better. My plan was to build something quickly, learn from it, and then at some point, when I have more time, build something from scratch. But this time, I started with an existing plastic shelving unit, some pegboard, and power strips.

This is a relatively quick and potentially relatively inexpensive way just to do a quick refresh of a charging situation and make it a little bit more efficient and a little more usable.

Also: Best USB-C laptop charger: Fastest, safest picks

One immediate change was replacing the individual USB chargers I had plugged into power strips with USB chargers that charge 10 devices at once. I chose to use a bunch of Anker PowerPort 10 units.

USB chargers will charge 50 or even 100 USB devices at once, but Amazon reviewers said the power management was unreliable. Anker got its start with charging devices, and they're a reliable brand, so I decided to batch a bank of 10 port units together. I use four of them in the prototype build, supporting 40 USB devices.

As the accompanying video shows, I bought a set of 18 pegboard bins, which came in three sizes. I was able to put most of the items I needed to charge into the bins, but I then needed to run cables to each unit.

To do that, I 3D printed a whole bunch of little guide pins that route cables on the pegboard. It should be noted that pegboard isn't actually standard from vendor to vendor. The pegboard I used was purchased from Home Depot. I designed the guides, specifically for that Home Depot white pegboard, using Fusion 360's wonderful parametric design capability.

I found that I was sometimes able to use a single bin to hold a number of devices. Other times, I used a bin to hold a device and all its related accessories. But because specific cable types were run to individual bins, it was important to be able to keep track of what devices belonged in what bins.

The bins themselves allow for labels, but there's not enough room for a standard label when you start adding three, four, and even five items to a bin. Further, vendors tend to name their products poorly, so the names and model numbers don't make for easy organizing.

I decided to extend the space on the front of the bin to support little photographs, which I printed using the Kodak Step printer. This printer prints on small sticker paper, allowing me to create custom photo labels for each item in the bin.

Once again, I turned to Fusion 360 to design up a set of label holders. The primary design latches onto the blue bins. I also have two other pegboard bin styles I liberated from my tool wall. One is enclosed in a wire grid, while the other is enclosed in wire mesh. I also designed label holders to fit these bins. Sadly, I have no idea where I got the wire bins, so the 3D prints probably can't be repurposed to fit whatever bins you have on hand. In any case, all seven 3D models are available for download from my Thingiverse account.

The Kodak Step can be had for under $60. The photo labels that the Step produces aren't terribly expensive for this application, but they do run somewhere in the range of $0.25 to $0.50 per print (depending on how many you buy). Unfortunately, the Step generated regular misprints, so I wound up having to reprint somewhere in the range of 10-20 of my prints. I wasn't thrilled wasting the printer paper, but the results themselves were a total win.

Conclusions and lessons learned

So let's talk results. I've been using this now for a few weeks, and I have some conclusions. It is way, way better than what I had before. No doubt. I can store a lot more stuff. I can put things back where they belong. I have cables ready for them. Were this to be a piece of equipment set cast in concrete, the actual usage would be perfect.

The problem is that this solution is not expandable, and it's not terribly flexible. That's because there are big wire bundles in the back that had to be jammed in place to get them into the charging units.

The right thing to do would be to put this whole thing on wheels so that I can get behind it, and I can run the cables and do cable management. Unfortunately, the Home Depot HDX plastic shelving unit I used for this project doesn't support wheels.

The second big problem is these cables are sized specifically for the run to a given bin and charger. If I decide to rearrange the devices being charged or to add more devices to charge, those cables will have to be replaced with appropriate length cables. Any changes will take time since they're all secured with tie wraps to keep them from running amok.

So what do I think about this prototype? I would say it's a win, but it's not a home run. It could be better. That's why I chose to build this first as a relatively quick prototype because I knew there would be lessons coming out of it that could then be applied to a more formal, more permanent design.

So what are the lessons learned?

The bin system rocks. I really, really like the bins. I like being able to include all the related parts with a device on a charger. So keeping the bin with its associated accessories: total win.

Power tool charging was added as a bit of an afterthought and works, but it's far from ideal. Right now, the chargers just sit on a shelf, and their power cords are tie-wrapped to the gaps in the HDX shelf on their way to a couple of vertical power strips.

The large power strips work very well. And I'll probably reintegrate power strips throughout if I continue to build this out. They're nicely flexible in terms of what I can plugin and how to use them, so that works. I've actually had these for years and used them in a wide variety of ways. What I like is that they're designed with the assumption that you'll need space for dongles or wide plugs, and the shape accommodates that easily.

The design fails because it's not on wheels, which it really needs to be to get to the back, to really handle the wiring. It's not as expandable as I would like it to be. It's not flexible enough to easily add new gear and move things around.

But overall, I'm quite pleased with this first design. I just think it can be better. And in the future, I may make one that's better, but for now, it is a huge improvement. Absolutely a huge improvement.

All right. So there you go. My not quite ultimate USB charging station, although I have to say it's come a long way, and it's much better than what I started with. There is also plenty of room for improvement. So stay tuned; I'm sure I'll be taking another run at this in the future.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas about how I might make this better and more flexible? How many USB devices do you have to manage? Let us know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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