Although the title of this post is a bit disingenuous (I’ve encountered 3D printing at TCNJ and Navair before), I finally got the chance to participate in the personal 3D Printing “Revolution” for myself this past month. I have a friend who recently had the misfortune of losing the ‘mode’ dial on his camera, a somewhat important control to have if you take photography remotely seriously. With bleak options for repair/replacement (a costly insurance/shipping ordeal to Olympus for servicing) he turned to me for help. Because no one sold a replacement dial, he was wondering if it might be possible to 3D print one. I explained to him the limitations in resolution, material properties, etc, and he bravely let me make a project out of his problem.
Many people, entities, and news articles have long proclaimed that the rise of cheap systems like the Makerbot Replicator would fundamentally change the way people consume. No longer would they be dependent on companies to produce the things they needed, the average Joe would be empowered to create anything he or she needed. Although I’ve always been a huge nerd and dreamed of such a reality, I never really partook in the personal 3D printing craze. This project was my first foray into this world and it was quite enlightening, but I’ll save my impressions and thoughts on the future of 3D printing for a future post.
The first step in this project was to come up with a 3D CAD model of the missing dial. Because I had no physical reference for the original part (other than a similar looking, but incompatible dial from elsewhere on the camera body), I was forced to simply try and reverse-engineer how the dial interfaced with the rotary switch stem (which was really more of a squat plate with a few alignment features). I was in Michigan at the time, and my friend was in NJ, so I had to relay all my measurement requests to him. He didn’t have anything super accurate like calipers, but I told him to use millimeters on a ruler since most camera designs I’ve come across are in metric. A little interpolation and guessing would fill in the rest.
We went back and forth, refining dimensions until it looked right. I wanted to nail it on the first try. The problem with the design cycle in 3D printing is that shipping is often the most costly part of the entire procedure, unless you own a 3D printer. I sent my friend figures like this to explain what dimensions I wanted double-checked:
As an aside, I found out that the University of Michigan has a 3D printing lab in the library that’s open to all students. Furthermore, it houses a Makerbot Replicator, which students can play with for FREE. I came here first to see if it had good enough resolution for this project, but not only was it temperamental to use, the definition of the parts was pretty terrible. It had one successful print out of half a dozen tries (picture below), so I had to go elsewhere for my 3D printing needs (they charge a $20 setup-fee for the high-def printers).
For a small part, I found that most services charged more for shipping than for the material/printing. The one acceptable vendor I found was Sculpteo (based in France, interestingly enough). The cost of the part in ABS plastic, shipped, was around $15. It was far less than what it would cost to ship and insure a camera, so the cost-effectiveness of this project was still valid.
There were certain features I wanted to oversize for a loose fit (ex. the engagement slot for the rotary switch’s ‘key’), and some that I wanted to undersize since you can’t put back material that isn’t there (ex. the inner diameter of the dial). I wanted a snug fit for the latter to minimize the need for an adhesive.
I planned it so that some light Dremeling would solve any fit problems we had, and luckily for my ego and my friend, I got it right. The knob ended up fitting the switch stem snugly, with enough clearance to rotate freely, and with enough material thickness to be durable.
It even has enough surface texture to interface with the friction-based transfer mechanisms in the underwater enclosure my friend has.
While my firsthand experience tells me that we are still months, if not years, away from the disruptive reality of cheap 3D printing for the masses, this project has been a pleasantly surprising success. It is indeed possible for anyone ( with some CAD know-how) to design and fabricate parts too complex to whittle out of wood, or make on a typical drill press.
While the long-term durability of my 3D-printed knob has yet to be tested, the end-product is fully functional and the journey has been quite educational. If you haven’t built/created anything on a 3D printer yet, I suggest you try it out. It’s cheap enough that anyone can do it on a whim, and you may discover that it’s something you will want to make use of in the future.