3D Printing and Vehicle Modification

3D Design for a sPOD SourceLT and Universal Mount

The affordability of 3D printing has changed the way I modify my vehicle. Not long ago if some part didn’t exist that fit my need I had to do without. A lot has changed over the years but how did all this lead me to making my own parts? How did I end up making this?

3D printed Quick Fist Mount

Before 2010 manufacturing my own parts wasn’t a reasonable option.

Charles W. Hull invented the stereolithography printer in 1986. In 1987 you could purchase the SLA-1 Original 3D Printer for about $300,000 UDS. The equivalent in 2023 value is just over a million dollars. For the next 20 years 3D printing and rapid prototyping was was out of reach for most people leaving just the traditional manufacturing process.

Between 2004 and 2005 the interest in low cost 3D printers skyrocketed when Dr. Adrian Bowyer, a Senior Lecturer in mechanical engineering at the University of Bath in England, introduced the idea of 3D printers that could self-replicate. The project named RepRap (‘REPlicating RAPid prototyper’) was open source and interest in low cost 3D printing spread worldwide.

Rep Rap Version I: Darwin 3d printer
Rep Rap Version I: Darwin 3d printer
Source: https://reprap.org/wiki/Darwin

Then the 3D Printing landscape changed in 2009. Charles W. Hull’s patent of stereolithography (SLA) and Stratasys’ patent for fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology expired. New DIY kits became available and competition for the new non-commercial user market drove prices for DIY 3D Printer kits even lower.

2010 and Maker Culture

During the early 2010’s, around the time Formlabs Kickstarter campaign for the FORM 1 began, online 3D printing service companies like Shapeways, Sculpteo, i.materialise, 3D Hubs, etc. moved to capitalize on the growing interest of 3D printing and the emerging market of low production number 3D printing. Offering multiple printing materials and the ability to print larger then a typical DIY 3D Printer. For individuals and small companies who didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to invest in a commercial 3D Printer it offers the capability of rapid prototyping without the upfront cost. By 2018 the 3D printing industry was generating more than $7 billion in revenue.

So here I am

It’s in this environment that I found myself looking for a part that didn’t exist. A Quick Fist mount for a Frontrunner roof rack. Having some CAD experience I was fascinated by the prospect of being able to manufacture my own parts so I dived in.

Not without mistakes of course. There’s an expression “fail fast, fail often” and by that measure my first attempts were an astounding success. If you plan on taking the same dive my advice is to literally start small when using online 3D printing services. You pay as much, if not more, for the volume of the object you wish to print than for the materials. Also invest in a precision measuring tools. Just eyeballing it will get expensive fast.

Eventually the incline of the learning curve began to level out. I also found myself in need of another impossible to find part. A relocation kit that worked with the OEM Tacoma backup camera and a custom rear bumper. It took several reprints to get the pitch of the camera correct as well as understanding the tolerances of the materials. Being a relatively small part the experience was worth the cost of the do-overs.

From There to Here by Just Making Stuff

Following is a sampling of the progression of the complexity of the parts I had manufactured. It also highlights a transition into creating parts to address an afterthought to that of being part of the modification from the very start. From filling in a need with a camera relocation mount on a bumper that didn’t have one. To making improvements on something that was satisfactory by cleaning up a solar panel cable pass through for a project that was in progress. To planning the location of a compressor switch and quick disconnect and working the other components in to fit within that design plan.

3D Printer Design of a Toyota Tacoma OEM Backup Camera relocation mount
Toyota Tacoma OEM Backup Camera relocation mount
3D Printer design of the Cascadia 4x4 VSS System / Deutsch connector bracket
Cascadia 4×4 VSS System/Deutsch connector bracket
3D Printer design of the ARB Compressor switch and quick disconnect mount
Tacoma interior ARB Compressor switch and quick disconnect mount
3D Printed mount used to relocating the backup camera to the rear bumper swing arm
Backup camera relocated to the rear bumper swing arm
3D Printed VSS System/Deutsch bracket mounted to the windshield cowl.
VSS System/Deutsch bracket mounted to the windshield cowl
3D Printed ARB Compressor switch and quick disconnect mounted in a Tacoma
ARB Compressor switch and quick disconnect behind the driver’s seat

You need only time to start manufacturing your own parts

3D printing services will vary in costs, materials available, and limitations of the size of the printed object. Online CAD services will vary in the design of the user interface as well as the file formats available for download. Each have their own advantages and disadvantages. Including their location to take advantage of shipping time and/or currency exchange rates.

My current project is a sPOD SourceLT / universal mount for the engine bay of a Subaru Crosstrek. I don’t own a 3D Printer or CAD software. It, and everything I’ve designed and had manufactured, exists through using some of the services I’ve listed below. The lists are by far not exhaustive but they will help you get started.

sPOD SourceLT / Universal Mount for the Subaru Crosstrek.

3D Printing Services

Browser-based CAD programs

  • Onshape – Mechanical Engineering / Advanced Product Design
  • SelfCAD – 3D Printing / Beginners
  • Sketchup – Architecture / Product Design
  • TinkerCAD – Beginners / Education
  • Vectary – Product / Graphic Design
  • Fusion360 – Advanced Features / Free for non-commercial use.

I’ve used Sculpteo and Shapeways printing services. Both are similar in printing materials available and in price with Sculpteo being less expensive than Shapeways with some materials. Of the browser-based CAD programs I’ve only used Sketchup. Mostly because I’ve used it since Google acquired (and later sold) the original creator @Last Software and all its quirks are familiar to me.

Further Reading

We want your input

We invite you to participate and constructively contribute. Are you using a different online service that’s not listed here that you want to recommend? Let us and the readers know by joining our community.

FULL DISCLOSURE: The products and services mentioned in this article were paid for by the author.

Hack The Pandemic

Lately, supply chain shortages became a part of daily life.  For many folks, it started with toilet paper and disinfecting products like Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer.  Now, in some areas meat is the unobtanium-du-jour.  Who knows what’s next.  Yet for healthcare workers and other folks who are on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, the PPE needed to protect these folks from exposure to the virus has been in seriously short supply for months.  Globally.

Despite the lack of N95 masks and isolation gowns, face shields and other PPE essentials, healthcare workers and so many other folks are continuing to go above and beyond their job duties knowing full well that this lack of PPE may cause them to contract the virus.  Commercial PPE manufactures are scrambling to make all items that they can, but we as regular citizens have the ability to help make even more PPE to help out the folks on the front lines of this fight.  Thanks to crowdsourcing and 3D Printing, folks just like you and me can help keep our healthcare workers and others safe from COVID-19.

In early April, I came across an article about a Canadian Boy Scout who used his 3D printer to help out his local hospital.  As the story goes, the hospital had put out a community-wide request for help as their caregivers were experiencing pain from wearing face masks that hook behind the wearer’s ears for extended periods of time.  The boy scout used his 3D Printer to create a simple device that holds the straps from the mask off of the back of the wearer’s ears.  He made a bunch and distributed them to his hospital.  Problem solved.  Reading this inspired me and made me want to know more.  Surely if surgical masks were hurting folks in one hospital, they were hurting folks in other hospitals – and so my next move was all but made for me.  I sourced the design for this “Ear Saver” from the National Intitute’s of Health (NIH.GOV) 3D print exchange and fired up my own 3D Printers.

While my first few batches of Ear Savers were printing, I consulted the Googles to get up to speed on how folks all over the world are 3D Printing PPE.  In a sentence – what some folks are doing right now to help our healthcare workers and first responders is truly impressive.  In a matter of days, folks have spun up operations that are cranking out serious volumes of face shields, masks, and all kinds of other parts that hospitals and healthcare workers need right now.  After watching a few videos and reading about some of these operations, I started searching to see if anyone had organized such an effort in Northern Arizona – but I could not find anything.  I knew that a local company that makes medical devices and the university were organizing projects internally, but I didn’t see anything underway by regular Joes.  So I jumped in and started learning how to make face shields in addition to the ear savers that I was already producing.

Thankfully, a friend of mine in Colorado was a couple weeks ahead of me in his own effort to make face shields – and picking his brain on how to make it happen was invaluable in getting my project off the ground quickly.  Normally, my buddy’s company, MotoMinded makes awesome things for dirt bikes and ADV bikes – but they completely pivoted to making face shields when a Colorado non-profit reached out for help.  Getting the download on the things that work, things that do not, and all of the other little details was a huge help.  You see, you can’t just print out any old headband, stick some kind of clear plastic to it, and use the rubber band from last night’s asparagus to hold the contraption on your head.  You have to make sure your PPE is actually going to help the user and not just become a potential source of liability.

To make quality PPE, you need to print with certain filaments, like PETG, that can withstand the steam autoclave sterilization method that hospitals use.  Likewise, all of the other components of the face shield have to be able to withstand sterilization so that the item can be re-used.  Thankfully, there are a bunch of folks out there who have already conducted this research and they’re happy to share their knowledge.  Thanks internet.  The global maker community has come together to crowdsource designs, get them validated by healthcare professionals, and then get tons of these supplies in the hands of the folks who need them.

One of the more popular crowdsourced 3D Printed face shield designs is Prusa Research RC3 USA face shield.  This design prints relatively quickly and has been optimized using USA standards for things 3-hole punches to make a face shield that’s easily manufactured without special tools.  Thanks to MotoMinded, I was able to track down the clear plastic that I needed for the actual shield.  The last item I needed to source to make a complete face shield was a headstrap, and I ended up using a couple of pieces of nylon 550 cord, tied to make a strap that functions just like the waist strap on your backpack.  I made a few samples and got them in the hands of some friends who are nurses, and the local hospital’s supply chain manager for a final validation and assessment of fitness for use.

Other organizations I provided samples to requested different features.  The Prusa RC3 face shield design in open at the top, and so some organizations have requested a closed top or a visor – something that crowdsourcing has once again addressed and validated.  On the NIH exchange, I found remixes of the RC3 face shield with a visor and with a closed top – exactly what these organizations were looking for.  This is what it’s all about – getting the folks who are on the front lines of this fight the tools that they need NOW.  Healthcare workers aren’t the only folks who can use additional PPE during this time either.

While I was getting up to speed on my 3D Printed PPE project, American Adventurist staffer Cris Mateski, (@blkwgn) was also busy putting his 3D Printers to work to make Ear Savers.  In talking to him I began to fully appreciate just how many different organizations beyond healthcare workers need PPE right now.  Cris has been giving his Ear Savers to police, fire, and other public service departments in southern California.  Hearing this, I got inspired to dive headlong into this project – why not start shipping face shields and ear savers to folks all across the country in addition to supplying folks who need them here in Northern Arizona?  This is a global pandemic afterall.

Today, my new around-the-clock job is 3D Printed PPE manufacture.  We’ve donated supplies from California to New York City, and from Tucson, AZ to Missoula, MT.  And the requests just keep coming in.

If making PPE sounds like a something that you want to get involved with, there are a number of ways that you can help out.  You don’t have to have a printer to make an impact, as there is so much more to this whole process than just printing parts.  Here are a few good things to know:

  1. Get online and get involved.  Find out if there are operations in your area that are already printing or manufacturing PPE.  If there are, reach out and find out how you can help out.  These larger operations certainly need folks to print parts, but many of them need volunteers to sterilize parts, package parts, make other components, or help with logistics – so find out where you can jump in and help out.
  2. If you’re in a more rural area and there aren’t any organized operations in your area, reach out! Post on social media what you want to accomplish, and see if you can scare up some help.  Strong alone – stronger together.  Then reach out to your hospitals, Law Enforcement, Fire, City and County Health departments, doctor’s organizations, or anyone else who could need PPE and find out what they need.
  3. Stick to validated designs wherever you can. The NIH is a great resource for designs for 3D Printed parts that have been “clinically validated.”  That last thing you want to do is cause an issue for a healthcare worker or expose yourself to some serious liability.  If you are going to do something – do it right and follow the design requirements (like filament type).  Yes, there are a ton of potential improvements to the designs that are our there right now, but lets just make the stuff that’s been approved and proven to work.

The bottom line is that if you have the bandwidth to help right now, know that a little effort can go a long way to potentially protecting someone from contracting COVID-19.  To learn more about my project, you can check out our Facebook page.  The goal is to make as many face shields and ear savers as we can, and get them wherever they need to go, anywhere in the United States.  Our healthcare workers are our frontline forces in the fight against this coronavirus as well as any future threat, so anything we can do to help them will make it easier for them to help the folks who are suffering from this virus.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and thanks for reading.