Our attachment to material things seems to be part of human nature.

For many of us, this desire starts when we are infants or toddlers. Whether it is that first blanket, stuffed animal, or special something, we simply have a hard time letting go — until, of course, that special thing eventually falls apart or just becomes worn out.

In the case of my daughter, Mary Beth, age three, that special, inseparable thing is her twenty year old, hand-me-down tricycle. Like most toys, it was made in China, and despite being mostly composed of metal, was not designed to last even this long.

Earlier this year, while out for an afternoon stroll on this trike, Mary Beth hit a curb — not hard, but just enough to shatter the left front axle journal into a dozen tiny pieces. The many years of exposure to sun, hot summers, and cold winters had finally taken its toll. The plastic parts which join the metal parts had become very brittle and were simply worn out, and “No!”, the pieces could not be glued back together!

Fortunately, the timing of the trike’s demise was a week before Mary Beth’s third birthday. How fitting then for her to receive an upgrade to a new ‘’big girl’’ two-wheeled bicycle — complete with training wheels, a bell, and glittery handle bar tassels!
Mary Beth, however, did not like her new bike. She would not even sit on it. In fact, she wanted nothing to do with it! Instead, she continued to straddle her broken old trike down the driveway much like a little old lady using a walker. As time passed, it became evident that the old trike was very special to her and something needed to be done about it!
A quick internet search on the toy’s model and manufacturer confirms the huge suspected problem – the design is obsolete and there are no spare parts available!

Fortunately, Mary Beth’s dad is in the foundry and machine shop business where custom parts are made (in America!) every day. Nothing is too good for Mary Beth – especially the boss’s only daughter! The entire company would surely come to the rescue!

Now I know what you are thinking…perhaps something along the lines of the 1971 movie version of ‘’Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,’’ where the very spoiled Veruka Salt’s father tasked all his company employees to unwrap Wonka bars to find his precious daughter a Golden Ticket.

Well, okay, maybe…particularly if this was the case in manufacturing some forty years ago when the original film was made.Back then, to replace one piece of an obsolete, custom plastic component, the entire part would have to be conventionally cut and machined from a solid block of nylon or plastic. If the part was replaced as a stronger metal casting, a loose pattern, casting, and machining would be necessary – a task that could have taken weeks of labor by skilled craftsmen including pattern makers, founders, and machinists!

Today, however, Mary Beth’s dad has a Stratasys 3-D Fortus 900mc printer available at the company! This rapid 3-D print technology, also known as additive manufacturing, has taken the place of the ‘’old way’’ of making things.

Using CAD software technology, the broken part was reversed engineered on the computer in about an hour and even mirror imaged to replace the other axle joint which was near failure. In a matter of a few hours, both new axle joints were automatically printed in strong poly carbonate plastic and reinstalled on the trike!

As you can imagine, Mary Beth was thrilled with her newly reconditioned tricycle! What a joy it is to see her ride it around the driveway! Not surprisingly, her new bicycle is still in the garage, collecting dust, and neglected — even to this very day.

The point of this story goes beyond ‘there’s more fun with a Fortus!’

Unlike repairing ‘’fun’’ or favorite personal things, there are millions of original plastic components on essential equipment used in defense and commercial applications that are no longer made or very difficult and/or expensive to remake in small spare quantities.

The ease and accessibility of reverse engineering and additive manufacturing is now available to a wide variety of manufacturers for endless applications which will certainly inspire tales like this one to come true for many more years to come!

John D. Danko

November 21, 2012