By Kyle Rankin
I had wanted a 3D printer years before I could justify getting one. Even a year before I bought a 3D printer, I was heavily researching the current crop of hobbyist printers for their capabilities and trolling Thingiverse for a solid list of useful things I could print that would make the printer earn its keep. At the time the list was sadly pretty small. Apart from bottle openers and a handful of other objects, it seemed like what most people did with their 3D printer was print out new parts for it.
It’s not easy to justify an $800-$2,000 machine because of all the great bottle openers and spare parts it could print for itself, but I had an ace in the hole. Our dishwasher had been half broken for over a year due to a faulty plastic part, and I knew if I had a 3D printer I could print out a replacement. I have a Frigidaire dishwasher that has three spray arms: one below the bottom rack, one between the bottom and top rack, and one suspended over the top rack. One fateful day, someone put a glass that was too tall into the top rack. The top spray arm hit the glass, wouldn’t move, and the extra pressure popped the arm off of this tiny circular plastic part it snapped into and rotated around. At first I was able to just snap the arm back on, but after a few loads it would pop back off again, and ultimately refused to stay on as the part and arm both wore down.
This is normally the place where you might call a dishwasher repair service and order a replacement part, but as a geek, I knew if I only had a 3D printer, I could print out a replacement part that was better than the original. I didn’t have a 3D printer yet, so in the meantime we just continued to wash dishes with two functioning spray arms — not ideal, but it sure beats washing by hand.
It was the Printrbot’s $550 price point that finally pushed me over the edge to 3D printer ownership. Before it came out, the cheapest complete 3D printer kit you could order was a RepRap Prusa kit for around $800 — just outside of what I was willing to pay. It turns out the Printrbot office is relatively close to the San Francisco Bay Area, so I was able to stop by there during a RepRap Meetup and get help assembling the bot from Brook Drumm himself. Once I got through the initial phase of calibrating the printer and printing random Thingiverse objects, I set my sights on my dishwasher.
The main obstacle I faced with fixing the dishwasher was my complete lack of CAD skills. Fortunately for me, at that time I worked for a company that not only employed engineers skilled in CAD, we actually had a commercial 3D printer at work. I talked to one engineer in particular about my Printrbot and he agreed to mock up a CAD drawing of my dishwasher part if I brought it in. It turns out it was a relatively simple part, because 10 minutes later he not only had an .stl file I could use, he had also improved where it snapped into the arm, to have a more snug fit.
That night I went to my printer and printed out a prototype part in PLA. While the part fit just fine, PLA just didn’t hold up to the temperatures inside the dishwasher, and after a load of dishes, the arm was sitting there in the top rack. Once I printed the part in ABS, though, it snapped right into place and survived multiple loads of dishes.
While I had the ABS hooked up, I went ahead and printed out four extra replacements, just in case. I’m glad I did, because after a couple of months the part finally wore out. Without a 3D printer I would be stuck with a broken dishwasher or ordering some $9 plastic hardware over the internet. Instead I can just snap in a 10 cent replacement and be on my way.
Kyle Rankin is a senior systems administrator and DevOps engineer, the author of DevOps Troubleshooting, The Official Ubuntu Server Book, Ubuntu Hacks, and Knoppix Hacks, among other books, and an award-winning columnist for Linux Journal magazine. He speaks frequently on open source software, including at SCaLE, OSCON, Linux World Expo, Penguicon, and a number of Linux users’ groups.