Moving Aboard: 3D Printing as a tool
3D printing is a fantastic tool for a boat! While it isn’t the solution to every problem I might have, a 3D printer can make certain jobs much easier. Making brackets, switch panels, and even engine controls is possible, and a home built 3D printer can run directly from a 12v battery. I’ve even managed to rig up my tablet PC as a controller for the 3D printer. Basic plastic filament for the printer is cheap enough to experiment with, and there are more exotic filament choices for particular jobs. Wooden filament (which is 40% recycled wood), flexible rubber filament (for squashy toys and stretchy rubber clips), and even water soluble filaments are available to solve particular printing and casting needs.
Here are a couple of projects I’m working on for my own boat:
This is a tiller bearing to hold the tiller rigid. The top of the tiller tube on my boat is welded on, and the tiller tube can’t practically be packed with grease or stern gland packing (believe me, I’ve tried that already). To solve the problem, I designed a printable bearing to clamp around the tiller in two parts, and hold in place supported with a jubilee clip. There are channels built into the block for silicone sealant and for marine grease. I chose PLA plastic because it shrinks less during printing, but I could also have used ABS or another hard wearing plastic. PLA is a more brittle plastic, but because the 3D printed parts are cheap to make, it doesn’t matter too much if it only lasts a couple of seasons. If I have a problem with the part, I can redesign to solve it, or use another type of plastic instead.
Rocker Switch Mounting
You can also see a small switch panel in the photo above, that has been printed to mount a rectangular rocker switch. The panel is simple, effective, and only took about 5 minutes. to make. I know that some people out there will be saying “why didn’t you just cut it with a fret saw?” – the answer is that it was more convenient to 3D print, and it’s a repeatable part. Once I’ve designed it, I can print 1 or 100 of them without any extra effort. It’s possible to design 3D printable objects relatively quickly and leave the printer working while doing other things.
Mushroom Vent Repair
I’m sure I’m not the only person out there with a broken mushroom vent. The internal fitting that supports one of my roof vents had perished, so I used the 3D printer to create a new insert and fit it to the vent using silicone rubber. To save other people the trouble of redesigning a 3D printable model, I uploaded my finished model to Thingiverse: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:319557 This way, when someone else needs to fix their mushroom vent, they can just print the part I already designed.
Solar Panel Mounting Brackets
My boat has a solar panel fitted to the roof. Last year, I fitted the panel using a temporary wooden block and some screws. It was an ugly solution that served it’s purpose but did nothing for the aesthetics of the boat. I’ve now replaced the wooden blocks with 3D printed brackets that use stainless steel bolts and screws to hold the aluminium supporting rails for the solar panel in place. The printed plastic was painted with ordinary marine gloss paint after assembly, and the finished result is much neater and closer fitted to the hand rails than the original grey wooden blocks ever were.
Geared Throttle Controller
The biggest 3D project I’ve designed for the boat is probably a replacement throttle control with a planetary gear system. One complete revolution of the throttle handle will move the throttle from its minimum to its maximum setting, the extents of which can be adjusted by attaching on the lever slide at the rear of the gearbox. Again, I thought other people might be interested in using this throttle control for their own project, so I uploaded it to thingiverse: http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:310084
So there you have it – 3D printing is a practical tool that can be used to solve any number of one-off or batch manufacturing problems. It’s not a replacement for a skilled manufacturer, but it can be used to produce prototypes and replacement parts for a number of different projects. It goes without saying that there will always be room for a lathe and milling machine in the garage or workshop – but there might just be a space for a 3D printer, too. When all is said and done, a 3D printer is a tool like any other, and like all tools. Like all tools. it will only perform as well as the person who is operating it.