PLA: The Plastic That Grows

If you’ve ever taken a coast-to-coast car trip across the United States, the one thing that’s sure to impress you is the mind-bogglingly immense amount of corn that we grow here. If you take the northern route — I’ve done it seven times, so I know it by heart — you’ll see almost nothing but corn from Ohio to Montana. The size of the fields is simply staggering, and you’re left wondering, “Do we really eat all this corn?”

The simple answer is no, we don’t. We grow way more corn than we can eat or, once turned into alcohol, drink. We do feed a lot to animals, many of which subsequently end up as burgers or pork chops. But even after all that, and after accounting for exports, we still have a heck of a lot of corn to put to work. There are lots of industrial uses for this surplus corn, though, and chances are pretty good you’ve got an ear or two worth coiled up next to your 3D-printer, in the form of polylactic acid, or PLA.

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Tariff Expansion Set to Hit 3D-Printing Right in the Filament

Mere weeks after tariffs were put into place raising the cost of many Chinese-sourced electronics components by 25%, a second round of tariffs is scheduled to begin that will deal yet another blow to hackers. And this time it hits right at the heart of our community: 3D-printing.

A quick scan down the final tariff list posted by the Office of the US Trade Representative doesn’t reveal an obvious cause for concern. In among the hundreds of specific items listed one will not spot “Filaments for additive manufacturing” or anything else that suggests that 3D-printing supplies are being targeted. But hidden in the second list of tariff items, wedged into what looks like a polymer chemist’s shopping list, are a few entries for “Monofilaments with cross-section dimension over 1 mm.” Uh-oh!

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Results of 3D-Printed Cylinder Head Testing Fail to Surprise

It’s the suburbanista’s weekend nightmare: you’re almost done with the weekly chores, taking the last few passes with the lawn mower, when you hear a pop and bang. The cylinder head on your mower just blew, and you’re out of commission. Or are you? You’ve got a 3D printer – couldn’t it save the day?

If this bench test of plastic cylinder heads is any indication, it’s possible – just as long as you’ve only got 40 seconds of mowing left to do. [Project Farm] has been running all sorts of tests on different materials as field-expedient cylinder heads for small gasoline engines, using everything from JB Weld epoxy to a slab of walnut. For this test, two chunky heads were printed, one from ABS, of the thermochromic variety apparently, the other in PLA. The test went pretty much as expected for something made of thermoplastic exposed to burning gasoline at high pressure, although ABS was the clear winner with two 40-second runs. The PLA only lasted half as long before the spark plug threads melted and the plug blew out. A gasket printed from flexible filament was also tested, with predictably awful results.

As bad as all this was, it still shows that 3D-printed parts are surprisingly tough. Each part was able to perform decently under a compression test, showing that they can stand up to pressure as long as there’s no heat. If nothing else, it was a learning experience. And as an aside, the cylinder heads were printed by [Terry] from the RedNeckCanadians YouTube channel. That video is worth a watch, if just for a few tips on making a 3D-printed copy of an object. Continue reading “Results of 3D-Printed Cylinder Head Testing Fail to Surprise”

Smoothing PLA with Two Paints

There was a time when most 3D printers used ABS plastic. It stinks, is probably bad for you, and tends to warp unless printed in a heated enclosure. So most people have gone to something else, mostly PLA. But ABS also dissolves in a readily-available solvent, acetone, and this is useful for smoothing the layer artifacts from a 3D print. [3DSage] has a technique that works for PLA or — he says — probably any filament. You can see what he’s doing in the video below.

The video starts out with a recap of things most Hackaday readers will already know. But hang in there because at about 1:20, he reveals his method.

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Grawler: Painless Cleaning For Glass Roofs

Part of [Gelstronic]’s house has a glass roof. While he enjoys the natural light and warmth, he doesn’t like getting up on a ladder to clean it every time a bird makes a deposit or the rainwater stains build up. He’s tried to make a cleaning robot in the past, but the 25% slope of the roof complicates things a bit. Now, with the addition of stepper motors and grippy tank treads, [Gelstronic] can tell this version of GRawler exactly how far to go, or to stay in one place to clean a spot that’s extra dirty.

GRawler is designed to clean on its way up the roof, and squeegee on the way back down. It’s driven by an Arduino Pro Micro and built from lightweight aluminium and many parts printed in PLA. GRawler also uses commonly-available things, which is always a bonus: the brush is the kind used to clean behind appliances, and the squeegee blade is from a truck-sized wiper. [Gelstronic] can control GRawler’s motors, the brush’s spin, and raise/lower the wiper blade over Bluetooth using an app called Joystick BT Commander. Squeak past the break to see it in action.

As far as we can tell, [Gelstronic] will still have to break out the ladder to place GRawler and move him between panels. Maybe the next version could be tethered, like Scrobby the solar panel-cleaning robot.

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3D-Printing Saves Collectible Lures from a Fishy Ending

Give a man a fishing lure, and he catches fish until he loses the lure. Give a fisherman a 3D-printer, and he can print all the fishing lures he wants, especially replicas of those that are too valuable to actually use.

It may seem strange that some people collect fishing lures rather than use them, but when you look at [Hunter]’s collection, it’s easy to see why. Lures can be very artistic, and the Heddon River Runts in his collection are things of beauty and highly prized. They’re also highly effective at convincing fish to commit suicide, so rather than risk the originals, he and his dad 3D-printed replicas.

After modeling the body of the lure in Blender, they modified it with air pockets for buoyancy and located holes for attaching the treble hooks and lip spoon, which was fabricated from a scrap of brass from a rifle casing. The finished lure lacks the painted details and some of the charm of the original River Runt, but it has something Mr. Heddon couldn’t dream of in 1933 when he introduced it — it glows in the dark, thanks to the phosphorescent PLA filament used. That seems to be irresistible to the bass, who hit the lure so often that they got sick of taking pictures. See it in action in the video below.

[Hunter] and his dad have been busy exploring what 3D printing can do, replicating all sorts of Heddon lures. They’ve even got plans to design and print their own lures. But maybe archery is more your sportsman thing than fishing, in which case this PVC pipe compound bow or a recurve bow from skis would be something to check out.

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Smooth PLA Through the Fire and Flames

3D printing makes it easy to produce complex geometries, but the fused deposition methods generally create parts with poor surface finish, largely due to the layers being highly visible in the finished part. There are a wide variety of ways to deal with this, often involving sanding parts after production, or the use of fillers and paints. [XerotoLabs] has another solution. (YouTube, video below the break.)

To smooth the parts, a butane torch is pressed into service. The flame temperature is kept fairly low, and the torch is used almost like a brush to evenly apply heat to the surface of the part. As the PLA reaches its melting temperature, surface tension helps to smooth the part out. This is very similar to flame polishing which is commonly used in the fabrication of acrylic plastics.

It is a technique that requires some finesse – too much heat or focus on a single area, and you’re liable to end up with a molten plastic blob instead of a nice shiny finished part. Precautions must also be taken to avoid burning yourself or your workshop to the ground. But it’s a useful tool to have in your kit when you’re producing PLA parts that you want to look their best.

We’ve seen other techniques for smoothing PLA, too – the solvent method is particularly interesting. Continue reading “Smooth PLA Through the Fire and Flames”