This past December, NASA 3D printed a working tool for the first time in outer space, using a 3D printer that was built with the help of Made In Space. That tool was a fully functional wrench, and after it was successfully tested from the International Space Station, NASA released the files for anyone to download and 3D print themselves.
This wasn’t the first 3D printed tool to be created. We’ve seen plenty of them, ranging from other wrenches to pliers, scissors, and more. As time goes on, individual designers learn what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to 3D printing, and they use this knowledge to come up with designs of their own. One of these designers is a man named Dr. John Steuben, and he has created a design for several 3D printable tools, including a pair of adjustable groove-joint pliers.
“For the last several years I’ve been a researcher in the Computational Multiphysics Systems Laboratory, which is a part of the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC,” Steuben tells 3DPrint.com. “In this role I’m developing methods for simulating the mechanics of 3D-printed and other additively manufactured material systems. I’ve also been involved in the polymer 3D printing game for about five years in total now. Like most folks I mainly printed toys and trinkets, the sort of stuff that gathers dust on the shelf after a while. However, two years ago I had a bit of a breakthrough.”
That breakthrough came when Steuben ordered a machine that required assembly with some odd shaped fasteners which needed a special spanner wrench to complete. Instead of trying to order the correct tool, he decided to take things into his own hands and 3D print his very own. Using his office’s MakerBot Replicator 3D printer and CAD software, he created a prototype of the tool he needed. To his surprise, the wrench was incredibly strong, much stronger than the job required.
This was a few years ago and that wrench is still frequently being used today.
“This experiment really changed the way that I viewed small consumer 3D printers,” Steuben tells us. “I started to imagine them as more abstract problem solving tools, and my production of trinkets dropped off dramatically. Since then I’ve printed dozens of electronic enclosures, quite a few gears and other machine components, and a number of different hand tools.”
One such tool is Steuben’s 3D printed adjustable groove-joint pliers. He designed them because he needed to load small test specimens into a large hydraulic tension tester. Since the specimens were finely marked for optical strain measurements, he needed a non-marring gripping tool. Using an old pair of adjustable pliers that were manufactured by a company called Diamond Tool and Horseshoe Company as a guide for the shape of the jaws and the ergonomics of the handles, Steuben modeled his own pliers.
“For the adjustment mechanism, I adopted the more modern tongue-and-groove style seen in modern commercial products; I feel that it is much better suited for 3D printing than the alternatives,” Steuben explains. “Because the root of the tongue and the pivot pin are loaded in pure shear, clamping objects in the pliers does not induce delaminating forces between the print layers.”
To model the pliers, Steuben used SolidWorks 2014, a software package he uses for most of his projects. He then printed them on his Makergear M2 3D printer, using PLA filament with 100% infill so that they would be completely solid.
“Overall, the pliers work exactly as I intended. The adjustment mechanism operates smoothly and the pliers can be used to grasp objects from 0-50mm in size,” Steuben says. “They are quite strong, and can be used for tightening small fasteners. You’re not going to be able to tighten large-diameter fasteners to high torque using them, but in these cases you should probably be using a socket wrench anyway.”
This is just the first of a list of tools that Steuben will be uploading for others to download and 3D print themselves. Other tools that he will be uploading soon include an exact 1/3 scale replica of a Coes adjustable “monkey” wrench from the 1880s, a miniature 3-jaw scroll chuck, and ergonomic file handles.
The great thing about 3D printing is that these tools can be completely customized to fit one’s needs. We are looking forward to seeing more tools become available in the near future from Steuben and others.
What do you think about these Adjustable Groove-Joint Pliers and the other tools Steuben has 3D printed? Discuss in the 3D printed tools forum thread on 3DPB.com.