3D printers: the future of machinery parts and design

Tired of running to town for parts? Have a great idea for an upgrade on your combine, but don’t have the time or connections to get a prototype part made as a demo for manufacturers?

Solutions for these problems are on the way.

For some time now, new, 3D printers have been available to designers and engineers. Creators use software to design products, and a 3D printer “prints” them out — layer by layer, until the 3D object is complete. No need for a machinist with a lathe, or an expensive specially designed factory.

There are several websites where at-home designers can use software to submit their own designs for printing on industrial printers. Once you learn to use the software, you can e-mail your creation to the printer, then wait for the piece to arrive in the mail.

And now, the American-made MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3D printer is priced for home use: US$2,199.

You can’t make your own swather (yet), but you can make something up to 410 cubic inches — that’s 11.2” long by 6.0” wide by 6.1” high.

The MakerBot Replicator 2 makes 3D versions of your designs using layers of melted plastic. At the high-resolution setting, each layer will be one-tenth of a millimeter — about the thickness of a sheet of copy paper. MakerBot’s website suggests making everything from kids blocks to dishwasher parts.

Just like you buy ink for your paper printer or wire for your MIG welder, you’ll need to buy plastic for your 3D printer. “MakerBot filament” costs from US$48 to $90 per kilogram. There are several colours available at the lower price; the higher price buys glow-in-the dark plastic.

Really, the only limitation is the strength of the plastic. When asked about the kinds of uses Prairie farmers might have in mind, Jenifer Howard, director of PR, MakerBot Industries pointed out a few things they don’t recommend making with this particular 3D printer:

  •  “Parts for your engine, containers for hot liquids, or anything else that will melt the material.
  •  A chain…to tow your car.
  •  Support blocks for your refrigerator or the space shuttle, or anything else excessively massive.
  •  Things you need to put a huge amount of torque on, like oil drilling equipment. 
  •  Anything life-or-death! We don’t suggest making safety valves or aircraft parts.”

While this might seem to limit on-farm uses, several options remain, as suggested by Howard:  

  •  “New, customized handles for tools of all kinds.
  •  Covers for corners and edges that stick out.
  •  Replacement buttons, knobs, levers, and latches that have broken or fallen off.
  •  Brackets and clips to suit your exact need.”

While MakerBot had 21.6 per cent of the 3D printing market share in 2011, other companies are also in this business. 3D printers are working and in development that can work with substances like steel, icing or even chocolate. †

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