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Could your next protein skimmer be 3D printed?

By Shane Graber - Posted Apr 18, 2012 10:00 AM
Personal manufacturing is coming into the public main stream with the advent of modestly affordable 3D printers that build things out of plastic such as the Makerbot. While they are not yet ready for printing protein skimmers, it is already possible to print things like frag plugs/racks, eductors, brine shrimp hatcheries, sponge filters, replacement parts, and performance modifications. Read on to learn more!
Could your next protein skimmer be 3D printed?

You can 3D-print this needlewheel impeller or design your own.

Picture this: It's late Saturday night and you hear a noise coming from your fish room. Upon investigation, you find your return pump is buzzing loudly and not pumping water. "Huh? What's going on here?!" You disassemble the pump and discover that an impeller blade has sheared off, and you don't have a replacement on hand. "Uh-oh!" Like any normal person you swear up and down lamenting that you can't get a replacement part until Monday, that is if your local fish store even has the part. If not, you will have to order online for next day arrival on Tuesday. This is going to be a long weekend.

A replacement impeller.
A replacement impeller.

However, you are no ordinary hobbyist because you have a 3D printer at your disposal. You fire up your favorite modeling program and quickly model a replacement impeller then hit the [Print] button. The printer begins spitting out molten plastic.  15 minutes later you are fitting your replacement impeller in place and have saved yourself a lot of heartache and worry -- and possibly the lives of many critters in your tank.

The concept sounds far fetched, doesn't it? 3D printers must be expensive! Not so. Within the last two years, 3D printer prices have come down significantly and if one is resourceful, a decent one can be self-sourced from online plans on and eBay for as little as $500. How do I know? I did it. In my case, I opted for a kit and purchased my 3D printer on Father's Day, 2010. I bought a Makerbot Cupcake 3D printer and I got it for a steal - $450. That's the price of a good protein skimmer, and the 3D printer will do so much more than skim my tank!

A simple 3D printable frag plug.
A simple 3D printable frag plug.

With it, I can design and print all sorts of things: frag plugs and racks, eductors, algae scrapers, food clips, connectors, Locline, pump parts, replacements for broken equipment, and even a new 3D printer. Or you can prototype modifications to existing equipment such as custom pinwheel impellers for your skimmer.

Think back to 2006-2007 when people were modding MaxiJet powerheads with propellers by hacking together cowls to make small in-tank propeller pumps. With a 3D printer a person could have modeled different blade configurations, different cowl designs, and different connectors to come up with something really cool and polished. Heck, you still can!  Jimmy Chen could have done a lot with one of these when he was designing the first ReefTec propeller pumps back in 2002.

If I know that I will be doing a bit of fragging, I can fire up my printer and print off a dozen or so frag plugs. If I need to setup an emergency quarantine tank I can print out a sponge filter. Or if my banggai cardinal pair spits out fry and I need to setup a larval tank I can print out a brine shrimp hatchery and a sponge filter for the rearing tank. The only limit is my imagination and knowledge of 3D modeling.

A brine shrimp hatchery that I designed, from 3D model concept to completed print fitted with a 2 liter bottle.
A brine shrimp hatchery that I designed, from 3D model concept to completed print fitted with a 2 liter bottle.

So far for my reef tank, I have designed two different kinds of frag plugs, a brine shrimp hatchery (above), a sponge filter for larval breeding tanks, a seahorse hitching post, and an eductor, with more ideas in the works. There are plenty of models available on Thingiverse, a free online repository for 3D models. At the time of this writing, there are over 21,500 models on Thingiverse that can be printed.

In the upcoming weeks, I thought that I would showcase some of the things I have designed and printed with my Makerbot in hopes of getting more people interested in 3D printing within our hobby. There is a huge potential for its usage in everything we do. It just takes a bit of skill at assembly and possibly learning 3D modeling with free software like Google SketchUp, which I've discussed before in two past articles.

I would like to ask readers to comment your ideas for things you would like to see 3D-printed for our hobby. If you have an idea, sound off in the comment section at the end of this article.

Oh, and just for the "wow factor" as I close out this post, take a look at something else that I printed on my Makerbot: a RC controllable Mario Bothers Turtle Shell Racer. A single racer took me 30 hours of printing but it was so worth it! The photo below is courtesy of Skimbal, the designer of this RC car.  Mine looks like the black one on the right minus the wings.

A 3D printable Mario Brothers RC controllable Turtle Shell Racer.
A 3D printable Mario Brothers RC controllable Turtle Shell Racer.

Author: Shane Graber
Location: Indiana

Shane has kept saltwater tanks for the last 12 years, is a research scientist, lives in northern Indiana, and is a proud Advanced Aquarist staffer.


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