With its potential to create virtually any usable object from a CAD file and a spool of plastic, 3-D printing holds endless possibilities — some of them disconcerting.
Last year, a Texas-based gun maker garnered media scrutiny when the company unveiled what was said to be the world’s first 3-D-printed plastic firearm that actually worked. It triggered a national conversation about gun rights and raised questions about a technology now widely available to consumers.
All the while, SwimWays was quietly printing guns of a less controversial type.
Turns out, 3-D printers are integral in the manufacturing of some well-known pool toys, including squirt guns and water cannons.
A little over a year ago, the Virginia-based toy maker bought an industrial-grade 3-D printer, also called a rapid prototyping machine, which enables designers to fashion plastic into products in a matter of hours.
The technology, long the ace up the sleeves of many manufacturers, is becoming much more affordable.
Take Zodiac Pool Systems’ fused deposition modeling machine for example. The FDM printer builds parts for concept models layer by layer with semi-liquid plastic. At $39,000, the machine was out of reach for many smaller makers of pool products.
“That same model, you can buy now between $10,000 and $15,000,” says Mark Bauckman, Zodiac’s engineering director for hydraulic pool cleaning.
The friendlier price tag gives SwimWays the opportunity to create toys with the same efficiency that Zodiac uses to develop sophisticated pool appliances.
That’s good because it drives innovation and gets products to market faster than ever before, but 3-D printers, which can be as small as a bread box or as large as a refrigerator, also hold some worrisome implications for those who mass produce and sell through conventional channels.
For a preview of the coming industrial revolution, take a look at how Gobble Gobble Guppies and Bubble Ring Blasters are made.
SwimWays’ new prototyper produces high-grade parts, based on digital 3-D renderings, from thermoplastic (a material that’s melted and cooled to form shapes) which are then assembled, tested and refined before sending them to mass production. A squirt gun, for example, is made in two halves which can be ribbed and screwed together.
In the past, engineers relied on outside sources to turn digital files into physical objects. Then there would be a whole lot of back and forth between SwimWays and the vendor as engineers revised their designs, bogging down the production process.
“We don’t have to send it over to China and wait two to three weeks to get a sample back,” says Tim Clemens, the company’s manager of industrial design. “It helps us get into that tangible 3-D world a lot faster. We can hold it in our hands. We can evaluate it better to see how it works. Does it float? Does it sink? Does it feel good in your hands?”
And the potential goes beyond the rapid production of seemingly anything the mind can conjure. Imagine going to the SwimWays website to download a CAD file for a Squiggle Squirter, for example, and printing the toy from your own personal 3-D printer.
“That’d be very cool,” Clemens says. “I’m surprised Lego isn’t doing it already.”
The Los Angeles-based toy design firm recently developed the Manta, a plastic fish that soars, spins, spirals and flips underwater depending on how you position its tail.
But you’re not going to find it at Leslie’s.
The only way you can get your hands on one is if you have a 3-D printer.
“There is the opportunity online to manufacture and now actually sell your stuff,” says Kram-Co. president Mark Trageser. “That’s a whole crazy revolution right there.”
“Crazy” and “revolution.” You’ll hear those words a lot when Trageser describes what he believes is the sort of Napsterization of manufacturing. Just as Napster and other file sharing programs shook up the music industry, Trageser thinks manufacturers are on the cusp of a similar disruption.
“It’s not so far in the future,” Trageser says. “In fact, it’s already here.”
While personal 3-D printers are something of a novelty, they’re on the fast track to the mainstream. MakerBot, which sells consumer-grade printers between $1,500 and $6,500, recently opened its second and third stores on the East Coast where customers are invited to design and print everything from Christmas tree ornaments to garden gnomes.
MakerBot, owned by Minneapolis-based Stratasys, which has supplied several pool equipment manufacturers with industrial-grade rapid prototyping machines, fosters a “design community” online where hobbyists can upload CAD files of things they’ve created. You can find pool vacuum nozzles, floating chlorine dispensers and pole brackets, among other printable parts, on Thingiverse, MakerBot’s file-sharing website.
Printing enthusiasts too anxious to order replacement parts from manufacturers or retailers are whipping up their own solutions. One Thingiverse designer, who goes by TheRooster, shared how he (or she) created push pins for an aboveground pool.
“Every year I go to set it up and every year something has broken or is missing from the previous year,” TheRooster notes on a message board. “Well, this year I had a bunch of broken pool pins. I didn’t feel like ordering them and waiting a week for them to arrive via UPS or whatever. Instead, I took a few measurements and modeled them up with my computer!”
“They worked great all summer long!”
No printer? No problem. The number of items that can be replicated through online printing services, such as Shapeways.com is infinite. Need a replacement wheel for your baby stroller? Is your food processor missing a button? You can purchase digital mock-ups of everyday items directly from designers, which are then made real and delivered to you.
Shapeways.com has several print-ready pool equipment products, including a vacuum pusher jet kit for a well-known brand of cleaner. Cost: $49.95 — an outrageous price tag considering you can buy the genuine product from retailers for less than $20.
Manufacturers caution against these replacement parts, as they could compromise the performance of the equipment.
“While 3-D printing is particularly useful in prototyping, it is not recommended for the development of parts to be used in certain products, such as pool equipment,” says Zodiac’s Bauckman. “3-D printed parts will likely fall short of quality and reliability standards because 3-D printers are not fine-tuned to the precise measurements of the original manufacturer’s part.”
Plus, the material likely isn’t suited for a pool’s harsh chemical environment. Zodiac also warns that the use of “knock-off” parts would void the factory warranty.
But Kram-Co.’s Trageser foresees a day when personal printers are capable of producing products of a much higher quality — a day when homemade and factory-made is virtually indistinguishable.
“Right now it’s cumbersome and not perfect, but somebody is going to make it easy,” Trageser predicts.
The industry’s major players have no real concerns that these micro-manufacturers pose any significant threat. Some are even looking forward to what innovations the maker movement springs forth.
“There will always be garage tinkerers, and I will tell you, some of the innovations that come to the industry come from those garage projects, because they have some very clever minds,” says Kevin Potucek, vice president of product management at Hayward Pool Products in Elizabeth, N.J.
However, optimizing and mass marketing those products will almost always require an established manufacturer.
“3-D printing will not take the place of great engineering,” Potucek adds.
But it does enable people like Dr. Richard A. DeVerse to work as lone wolves producing a low volume of products. The inventor of the FlowVis, a flow meter, develops gizmos for a variety of industries from his Kona, Hawaii laboratory.
With his industrial-grade 3-D printer, he churns out specialty parts on demand, customizing them with brands or colors, according to client specifications.
Dr. DeVerse wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It allows me to live and work in paradise while [remaining competitive],” he says.
How the Big Three use 3-D
Speed to market is the drum beat that makes manufacturers march.
Now they’re able to get products into distribution fast by creating prototypes in-house which allows engineers to validate their designs with models that closely resemble the finished product.
This is especially important in a technologically-driven world where products are growing more intelligent at a rapid pace.
“If you burned a year getting to market, then you maybe whacked a third of the life off that product,” says Potucek.
When Zodiac Pool Systems develops a new model of pool cleaner, it typically produces 10 to 30 units which are placed in swimming pools so its product development team can gauge performance.
The Vista, Calif.-based manufacturer also calls on its service team to test how easy the units can be taken apart for repairs. Its marketing department, meanwhile, gets hands-on experience with the product to provide feedback on aesthetics.
“We’ll go through that and make notes on what needs to be addressed. You want to do that before the tooling phase because once you get into that, everything becomes expensive,” says Bauckman.
In Pentair Aquatics System’s pursuit of a more efficient pool pump, one engineer took inspiration from — of all things — a golf ball.
The ball’s dimpled surface induces turbulence, allowing it to fly farther and faster than a smooth ball.
The engineer decided to apply that same theory to a pump impeller. Using a 3-D printer, he developed a plastic impeller with a bumpy surface to see if it would make the water flow more efficiently.
Did it work? Not so much.
So the designer took the opposite approach and made a concentrically round impeller to boost efficiency.
The point? Innovation comes from trial and error, and with 3-D printing, product developers can experiment more than ever before.