3D Printing to empower niche manufacturing

I am an unlikely advocate for 3D printing because, well, I hated it for a very long time. It seemed (maybe still seems) like a way for quasi creative people to endlessly re-create ugly cheap tchotchkes with extensive waste from printing supports and 1:1 print failure ratios, all while your spare bedroom or office stinks to high heaven of melted plastic. Did I mention it takes FOREVER?! the holga sized camera in this posts featured image (and shown below) took 28 hours to print all of the parts… at least it used to.

And that’s the thing. It takes forever, the equipment and materials require an almost saint like dedication to maintenance, calibration, homeostasis and repair, and the results are often imperfect at best or unusable often enough that it can begin to feel like the norm and what you are left with is a little plastic something that isn’t as nice as you’d hoped it would be. This ignores the fact that making anything new requires a skillset that takes years to reach proficiency and in the age of subscription software costs $500/yr or more to utilize. If you don’t know how to design in 3D software, have a fast enough computer to run the software, and a reason to spend $60/month on one small part of an expensive hobby then 3D printing is relegated to world of stuff someone else has already made and shared with the world. So what gives?

There is an application where 3D printing really shines. The time and money it takes to get a product/solution into the real world. In the world of global manufacturing it’s hard to convince most people to do something that you can’t sell 10,000 units in the first run. There are often very real problems where 100 of something or maybe even 11 would do the world a lot of good.

and depending on your take on “doing the world a lot of good” I may or may not deal in that level of impact. I have a penchant for discontinued hondas and enjoy using the product design process to make art. Sometimes a friend says “what if” and I tend to say something along the lines of “hold my beer” The Holga print is an example of one of those times.

My friend Christopher is a photographer (by trade? by hobby? are we what we do or is what we do a collection of facets reflecting ourselves outwardly to others?) His 3 year old (at the time; we grow or we die) was getting excited about the hobby and couldn’t be trusted with any of Christopher’s equipment and most of the equipment was too big for their tiny hands. Christopher found a small goPro clone that was cheap enough, good enough, and he thought, small enough to be a good first camera but when Bowie got their toddler hands on it the ASAKO was too small to hold, point and use.

Christopher was talking about this with me on the phone (he often calls with small engineering problems because it is a love language we share) and asked if I could design and print up a grip for the little action cam that would make it easier for Bowie to hold. I thought it sounded like a simple project and just needed to know what size would be best. Christopher said “about the size of a Holga.”

That’s what got the ball rolling on this. What was asked for was much simpler, but I couldn’t get the form of a Holga out of my head, so I just dove into it. The first step was placing the lens in the correct center of the faux focus ring. Then i went to task making sure all of the buttons, and visual indicators on the action camera were either directly accessible or could be used through 3D printed actuators. There was a lot of revision necessary and the 3D printer made turn around fast by any benchmark you could use. I didn’t need to hack another one out of wood or foam by hand, I could print the new part while I slept (and ate, and showered, and went about my day.)

While working on the Holga Grip I also had a few late ideas that always come during this kind of process, but never make it onto the first version when you are going for mass production. I adjusted the size of the faux focus ring to accept common gels and lens filters. I hogged out extra space inside the grip to hold accessories like a charger and battery and I added threading to accept a wood insert to make the grip tripod accessible, all while fiddling with the button feel of the shutter button actuator to make sure a 3 year old could use this camera like any other camera.

We sold the Holga action cam grip at our small business, but it was complicated. We had to buy the action cams ahead of time because every 9 months or so ASAKO would update their design just enough to make the grip not work, and we wanted to be sure folks had the correct model. That made the price a little shocking as we had to charge 3x what a mass produced toy camera would cost. To manage costs we bought action cams with damaged packaging at a discount and resold the unnecessary accessories on ebay to recoup some of our upfront costs. It was a lot of work and didn’t turn into anything that respected our labor or time. It was a starving artist model, but couldn’t have been possible without 3D printing.

Another product that worked out better for us was for a few old Honda motorcycles that are all about as old as I am. In the mid 80s honda started locating their fuse blocks on the handlebar clamp right below the instrument panel. As someone who has designed an OEM style motorcycle wiring diagram from scratch, I can understand why they chose to relocate. You spend a lot of space and money on wire running back to the seat to integrate fuses into each circuit and can save a dozen yards of wire on each bike. That’s probably a cool million in the scale Honda operates.

On a couple of models Honda chose to use injection molded fuse covers and 35 years later (going on 40) they’ve nearly all cracked in half from baking in the sun. I don’t know how many Honda Shadow 500s and Honda Nighthawk 700s were made from 1983-1986, but not enough for any business person worth their salt to spend $50k on molds and honda stopped producing the fuse covers in the early 90s. The last of the unsold new stock stopped showing up on ebay in the twenty-teens and now even sun scorched originals can fetch $60-$80 when they show up because they are so hard to come by.

This is an excellent application for micro manufacturing, but the part is too complex for more traditional low volume manufacturing techniques. It won’t easily pull from a silicone mold and needs to be fairly precise to fit properly. It has a lot of things to interface with and avoid in the fuse box, so It needs to be accurate. It’s also a market where old Hondas are reliable bikes and are often sold to owners who quickly get tired or nervous staring at their exposed fuse box. “Will rain torch my electrical with these exposed?” “Must I really hum down the road looking at these unsightly fuses?” a lot of them hop on ebay and find our fuse covers.

We aren’t making retirement money, but we are improving the stress level and experiences of the riders of these old Hondas and, i like to believe, keeping them on the road longer. You take better care of the things you love. We can also to fun weird things like custom graphics on them, which would never be possible with injection molding. And the printers are getting faster and smarter and more accurate.

The latest generation of 3D printers is using noise cancelling technology to micro adjust for vibrations at high speed to create near perfect prints at 4-5x the speed of yesterdays printers. They also detect failures and stop printing, as well as swap filament colors live durning prints to make multicolor prints easy and automatic. In a small production environment it also saves filament as a single color change can be used across multiple parts. every layer requires a change and changes add a lot of time and waste to a print, but they are being designed intelligently to reduce the waste and the wait.

Now a-days I bristle with awe and excitement when I talk about what we are able to do with 3D printers. It’s a full 180 from before. All of the problems aren’t fixed, but they are moving in the right direction. I’ve also used other micro-manufacturing techniques like vacuum forming and witnessed the piles and piles of waste it creates which reframes the waste of the 3D printer a bit for me. Creation is destruction; in the end we need to be more conscious of what we choose to make and buy, but that’s a societal project bigger than this blog.

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