I Finally Bought a 3D Printer!
About a decade ago, when I was working for Nissan North America, 3D printers were really starting to come down in price. At the time they were less than $3,000 and buying one for the engineers at work was starting to look attractive. We had a lot of uses for it to make small hand-held tools that would be used for the assembly lines. The factory had an internal machine shop that could make plastic tools, but generally it would take a week or more to have them completed. A small 3D printer could possibly make them in 24 hours or less.
I haven’t been directly in an automotive factory setting for six years having left to pursue other interests in 2014. The thought of buying a 3D printer hasn’t left my mind, and about 2 years ago I really thought about buying one. I watched YouTube video on recommendations for the best models at the time, read blogs on the same subject, but I never bought one. I was deep into the interior work on the widebody Mustang I was building, and the idea of making my own replacement parts was very tempting. I also saw some opportunity to make aftermarket parts for the Foxbody Mustangs. I eventually put the idea on the back burner after finding a few people that were already printing for that generation of Mustang.
This week that idea came back to the surface. I’ve written before that I am starting into the Porsche realm with a 1987 944 2.5L I bought from Copart last year. I found that an acquaintance knew of an ’86 model sitting in a field that the owner wanted to get rid of for a very low price. After a quick discussion over the phone, I was headed over the Cascade mountain range to pick it up. When I say low price, it was $400. It came with extra parts from another car, so I plan to take what I need for my fire damaged ‘87 model and then sell the rest. So far, that hasn’t gone well though.
How the 3D printer came idea came about again is that I was taking the door mirrors apart on the ’86 parts car. They are plastic internally, and as I found out they haven’t aged well. The ’86 has been sitting in a field for at least a decade, if not more. The last time it had registration was in Washington (near Olympia) in 2008. Beyond 2008 there are no records or receipts for the car, so my suspicion is that it became the parts car around that time. While I was taking apart the mirrors, the plastics began to break. I’ll admit there was error on my part taking it apart, but plastics from the 80s haven’t aged well. The same was true in my Mustang projects over the years. Once I had failed spectacularly on the disassembly effort, I started to look for replacement parts. While some things can be bought through dealers and distributors, the mirrors only come as assemblies. At least the electrical pieces. The 944 mirrors are heated and have internal gears / motors for movement. The little plastic gears and holding rings stick and break from non-use, which I found out the hard way. The assemblies, while available, are hundreds of dollars from a dealer. I get it, it’s a Porsche, and there is the “Porsche tax” as owners call it. But for a couple small pieces that aren’t made separately, you can easily ring up hundreds of dollars in goods in an online shopping cart pretty quickly.
Being the cheapskate I am, I thought I could figure out how to make them myself eventually. The parts car has broken pieces from sun damage, and I can see similar problems on the ’87. A 3D printer should be able to make a lot of the smaller plastic pieces that get damaged from use over time or from removal. Judging from Facebook I’m not the only one with broken pieces. Almost every week I see new owners or potential owners joining the various groups I’m in to ask what they should look for on a Porsche 944 or Foxbody Mustang before buying or on their newly bought car. The plan is to make parts for myself primarily, but offer parts for others since I should be able to make them on demand.
I bought a 3D printer finally, and chose the Prusa i3 MK3S+ model. From the reviews online, and talking with others that are printing currently, the Prusa is highly recommended for durability, ease of use, and it can make car parts that will withstand heat. I will need to replace the nozzle with a harder material for abrasive filaments, but they are also sold on Amazon and other retailers. PETG (Polyethylene terephthalate glycol) seems to be the best choice for parts to handle the heat, and some are using a carbon fiber blend PETG filament for extra strength. The printer comes as a kit for a lower price, which I was told should be assembled over a weekend easily. I’ll do a review as soon as I receive the printer and assemble it.
I must admit that I’m excited to try my hand at 3D printing. I haven’t used a 3D design software before, and I wasn’t very good at 2D AutoCAD. It’s going to be a huge learning experience for me, so we’ll see if a dinosaur cane come into the 21st century.