3D printers promise to revolutionise the world. 3D printed spines, livers, faces. 3D printed houses, furniture and consumer goods. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. There’s even been demonstrations of an entire working 3D printed motorcycle. But while all those things are still somewhat off in the future before they become widely used and available, there are practical applications for 3D printers today, including using a 3D printer to repair a motorcycle.
The journey to using a 3D printer to repair a motorcycle starts for us were so many things do – working on a bike while tired and not concentrating. After replacing the bars on our KLX250S project bike and returning the controls to them, we snapped off a tiny plastic pin that engages the clutch switch. It’s effectively a safety switch that ensures you can’t turn the bike on in gear without the clutch pulled in. It isn’t critical but nevertheless it’s something we wanted to fix.
Now, this plastic pin is just a small part of the switch and yet there’s really no way of fixing it – and that means replacing the whole part. At around $30, it’s hardly going to send you bankrupt but not only do I hate wasting money, I especially hate doing so when it’s such a tiny component. Enter 3D printing.
Now, I realise this isn’t terribly exciting. It’s not like we’re 3D printing a new engine or even a sprocket. Those thing are a long way off in the future for consumers. But it is possible now to save a heck of a lot of money using 3D printers for smaller things.
There are two steps involved in using a 3D printer to replace a part like the one we have here. The first is creating the 3D model and the second is to print it.
There are a huge amount of free options out there to design your 3D model. I have previously dabbled with 3D model making in high school over 15 years ago, so it was hardly fresh in my memory but the more popular programs have wonderful tutorials and plenty of support throughout the internet to get you by. I ended up using SketchUp which is perfect for middle of the road users and has plenty of plugins available should you want to get more extravagant.
Thankfully the part I was recreating wasn’t too difficult. It’s basically a rectangular prism with some cutouts, cylindrical pins and few bevels and notches. Because the part I’m making isn’t exactly cutting edge engineering, using a ruler and some calipers is more than adequate to get the measurements. It’s then just a case of recreating what you see in your hand to something on the screen.
After a few hours of mucking around in Sketchup, I felt fairly chuffed with what I’d achieved. The next step was to print it.
Obviously if you’re serious about 3D printing, buying your own printer might be the logical step but for me, this would at the moment be a one off experiment. If you really want to do everything yourself, many cities and universities around the world provide public access to 3D printers for a small fee (or sometimes even free). Another alternative is to contract someone to make it for you using a site such as 3D Hubs.
According to their blurb, 3D Hubs is an online 3D printing service platform that operates a network of 3D printers with over 20,000 locations in over 150 countries, providing over 1 billion people access to a 3D printer within 10 miles of their home. All you need to do is upload your model and you’ll instantly get a list of people nearby who can print your job for you and a quote on the cost.
For me, I selected the services of Ariana’s Hub, who quoted me the massive amount of $1.24 to print my item. Posted it would cost $3.24 – a total of a tenth of the cost of replacing the entire part. Now, due to some rookie mistakes using SketchUp, my model wasn’t perfect. There appeared to be gap inside the model between the centre area and one of the walls, but I was told that should I wish to print it that the material expansion would probably close those gaps anyway. Being too lazy to go and fix my model, I gave the go ahead to print. Here’s what we got:
In fact, Ariana’s Hub sent us two, so double bargain. The only imperfection in the printed item was a small whole in the wall next to the circular depression – but that’s of no issue as it merely holds a spring in place. The real test is to see whether everything lines up in the casing of the switch:
And it does perfectly, the measurements proved spot on and we once again have a working part and mission accomplished. Now I realise that with the time I spent making the model and ordering it to be printed, I could have probably made more than enough money from a real job to pay for the replacement item twice over. But what perhaps I wasted in labour I saved in being able to reuse 95% of the part in question instead of having to throw it in the bin.
But just as importantly it has opened up a world of possibilities in the future. Small parts on bikes can often break and the first thing we tend to do is look at replacing it. But 3D printers are giving us the opportunity to repair rather than replace and their ability (and the materials that they can print with) is only growing. For the moment, that’s likely to remain restricted to plastic parts and silicone as the technology for ‘3D printing’ metal isn’t up to scratch of CNC parts but that still provides a wide range of options and opportunities for DIY mechanics.