Enter 3D printing
I am a mechatronics engineer by trade and for most of the last 25 years have been involved in one form or another in the design and manufacturing of automated manufacturing machinery. That means I’ve used a lot of Aluminum. I really like aluminum as a material!
The essential mechanical pieces in my bigger lighting systems are machined from this very versatile material. The intention was to also use it in the much smaller lamp design I described in my last post.
The difficulty was to get someone to quote making the low quantity of these simple parts. The company had I worked with before did not have any capacity this time or no interest in providing me with a quote. A friend who owns a machining company asked me during dinner why I would not make these out of plastic. I came up with some answer but I had to admit to myself that it really was not a good answer. Perhaps I was just uncomfortable with the thought.
The sample parts for the very first prototype were given to me by another friend and kindred maker spirit down the road who has a 3D printer. In his words that 3D printer is very old and he is looking to buy a more up-to date machine. I had no experience with 3D printing and did not expect much. The ABS plastic parts that he gave me, while not very attractive visually, were much more mechanically sound than I had expected. They even took a small M3 thread well to hold some short set screws. These part have proven to be invaluable to debug the first prototype, have taken quite a beating, but they are still happily in service!
Based on that positive experience and out of pure curiosity I started browsing online 3D printing companies Shapeways, iMaterialize and Skulpteo and read forum posts on these sites to see what materials were available, what their limits would be, what sizes and finishes one could print in. The idea emerged to print not only the end and connecting pieces of an LED arm, but to 3D print the entire LED arm in one piece. This would not only open entirely new design options but would also help solve several challenges. Also, fewer parts means less time spend assembling and adjusting components.
The image below shows a computer rendering and lighting simulation of the re-designed lighting system with 3D printed LED arms. And the three photos that follow are closeup shots of the first set of 3D printed parts, which turned out to be absolutely phenomenal. Any surface imperfections that may be perceived in the photos are exaggerated by the magnification and the fact that I increased the sharpness of these images to possibly highlight any such imperfections. To the naked eye and touch these parts look and feel beautiful: