This post has been in the works for some time now and has morphed from a purely conceptual writing to one focused on concrete application. Let me begin at the beginning. A few years ago, I met an individual who worked as a professional designer and builder of models. These models served as functioning representations of various products companies wished to mass produce and help flush out everything from design flaws to production issues. In our conversations, he outlined the model building field as it progressed from creating mockups from wood, metal, and plastic the old fashioned way to its modern form of using computers to manipulate various plastics and resins into the desired form. About a year after our initial meeting he was kind enough to invite me on a tour of the facilities in which he worked and I heartily accepted after becoming fascinated with the processes he described.
The company for which he worked is small, only employing about ten or so people, and produces models for all types of companies ranging from the food industry, auto manufacturing, and aeronautical to government agencies like NASA and the military. Their front office was (and still is I assume) littered with various objects representing the scope of their work including pieces for satellites, firearms, cell phone bodies and electronics, toys, parts for factory equipment and appliances, food containers, and countless others. The fact that companies do not just design a part and start producing it immediately was not new to me as another friend of mine (Tom) works for a different company that also helps design and test products before they are produced for general use but I never really thought about the ability of computers to make this phase so much faster, cheaper, and easier. In my mind, I always pictured the machinist or carpenter laboriously creating a prototype followed by all the executives standing around the conference table saying “Yep, that’s what we had in mind”. Companies can now use computers and relatively cheap plastics to create an infinite number of extremely detailed and fully functional mockups for a wide array of designs significantly reducing R&D and production costs at the same time.
For me, the most fascinating part of all this came during the tour when I got to see the process in action. There were two 3-D printing (as it is known) processes employed at the time of my visit. The first used a machine which heated plastic resins and laid the hot plastic out on a platform below the “print” head. It reminded me of a baker using an icing bag to decorate a cake, slowly building up a 3-D object one layer at a time. The second machine used a laser to solidify liquid resins into the desired shape. The detail for each was absolutely incredible but for many thousands of dollars each, you would expect these machines to be very good.
A few months after my tour, Martha read an article discussing the possibilities of employing 3-D printers that used the first method mentioned above in the production of an outsource car. This started a conversation in our house about these printer’s eventual arrival into the average household. No longer would a trip to the hardware store be required for certain parts, we could just print our own. As these devices became smaller and less expensive, additional articles examined the impact of these printers on the manufacturing industry and the economical and time saving benefits for the consumer.
A few months later, the inner handle for Moby’s sliding door broke and I quickly discovered that replacements are NLA as are a lot of plastic parts found in bay windows and other older vehicles. I immediately thought of 3-D printers and their capability to produce these hard to find and easy to break parts. The most significant drawback at the time was price since a printer typically cost a few thousand dollars for a base model that was nowhere near the grade used at the shop I visited. While the cost of these devices was a little steep for a single handle, it made more economical sense if they were used to produce many parts for the consumer. Legalities aside (I have little knowledge of laws governing this type of activity), it stands to reason that after buying one of these machines and producing parts on demand you could certainly recover the start-up costs and help other car aficionados or anyone else in need of something no longer available. Of course you also need some skill with design software and perhaps a 3-D scanner to make it happen – the lack of the former makes me a non-candidate!
In the intervening time, these printers appeared more frequently in articles and news reports. Like most new technological products, price and size declined while capabilities grew and popularity propagated with accessibility. Companies began offering their services designing and printing your object or just printing whatever plans you send to them, making a lack software skills less of an issue. Even design sharing websites popped up allowing those more talented (and with more free time) to share their plans with those owning or having access to 3-D printers. The most recent article I came across predicted desktop 3-D printers available for a few hundred dollars by the end of this year and becoming prevalent in homes within the a few years. The thought of making VW parts continued to bounce around in my head, especially when that sliding door handle broke a second time and after my son broke the plastic filler tube for Moby’s water tank.
A little over a year ago, the department in which Martha works (DTLT) bought a 3-D printer and her colleague Tim, aka Slide Guy!, set about putting it together and getting it running. They produced some cool objects, had a lot of interest from other departments, and eventually created a makerspace, a room for not only 3-D printing but creating models through many different approaches. It is a space I could find very useful! During my last visit, Tim was in midst of printing model planes for a student’s science experiment. The printer seemed to have endless possibilities, including producing a few busts of the DTLT crew. I eyed the machine with a slant towards VW parts and paid attention to how useful and practical they found the device. Little did I know my chance to test my idea would come sooner than expected.
During a camping trip in June of last summer, a plastic strap broke on Moby’s sink unit. These straps, otherwise known as cabinet door check straps, are notorious for breaking. In fact, during my career as a VW hobbyist, I have seen only a handful intact and lucky enough to have one in Big Red, that eventually transferred to Big Blue, and another in Moby. More often they are replaced with chains, string, or just left broken. Knowing the fragile nature of this strap, I had every intention of reinforcing it with a chain or just removing it all together until the children got over their destructive ways but, as with most things in life, I never got around to performing the task. I knew there was not much point in trying to find a replacement. The local junkyards never had one. I never saw one at a show or online, and no one reproduces them. Nonetheless, I tried the online used parts vendors just for kicks and, of course, struck out. I then asked Martha if it would be possible to print one and if she thought Tim would be willing to help. I sent in the pieces of the old strap and he produced a design along with several prototypes made out of different plastics. The initial design proved too thick and several plastics turned out to be too brittle but, in the end, he produced the perfect strap design (I am still a little disappointed the glow-in-the-dark plastic didn’t pan out). I now have two straps, one for a spare, and am quite grateful to Tim for his time. The design is posted here for those with or who have access to a 3-D printer.