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Advancements in 3D printing could reshape the surfboard industry

The hype surrounding 3D printing has consumers and manufacturers buzzing. There have been discussions of printing everything from guns to steaks to entire buildings. NASA even funded the development of a 3D food printer to feed astronauts in space. Everyone wants a piece of the computer-generated pie. And surfers are no exception. Today, from your home, with nothing more than a 3D printer and a digital design file, it’s now possible to create functioning fin setups, fin boxes, and plugs for your next session. The insight and knowledge that were once relegated to the minds of shapers and design companies could soon be socialized and downloaded by the masses, clearing the path for a new design renaissance in the sport.

Here’s how it works: With a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file acting as a virtual blueprint, 3D printers utilize an array of materials—plastic, metal, and yes, even polyurethane—to turn an idea into a tangible object within a few hours. The process is called additive manufacturing, and in essence, it makes it possible to build a physical 3D object out of thin air. Once you’ve uploaded your design, the printer first creates a base layer out of your selected material and then adds multiple layers on top of one another until your object takes its final shape. Imagine creating a new fin design from your bedroom in the morning and being able to test it out in an afternoon session.
It’s not a matter of if surfboards will one day be self-manufactured through 3D printing, but when.

Creating an entire surfboard using a 3D printer is possible, but not yet practical. According to Paul Spoliansky of 3DSystems, a pioneer firm in the industry, it’s not a matter of if surfboards will one day be self-manufactured through 3D printing, but when. “We could create a surfboard from a 3D printer now, but the size of the printer you’d need to create a board would be too expensive and large for most people,” said Spolianksy. “It’s definitely going to happen. But in the meantime, we’re seeing people creating things like fins and fin boxes. It’s not theory, people are actually doing it now.”

Surprisingly, the technology behind 3D printing dates back nearly 30 years. For the bulk of its lifespan, due to cost, 3D printing was relegated to automakers and the aerospace industry. But in the past five years, the price of the printers has fallen dramatically, making it possible to purchase one for a little over $1,000. When it comes to the cost of self-manufacturing, it’s currently estimated to run you around $100 to create a plastic set of three fins.

Although there are some progressive designers already self-manufacturing fins from their homes with 3D printers, the technology has not yet made it to the masses. Before 3D printed fins reach lineups, they’ll face a number of obstacles, most of which relate to materials. The majority of the plastics currently available for 3D printing aren’t robust enough to hold up in heavy-water conditions, but according to Adrian Barnes of Futures Fins, finding the right material is only a matter of time.

“The only thing lacking right now is finding a plastic material that’s stiff enough to hold up to the conditions. We’re getting really close to seeing that and I think in the future, we’re gonna see a lot of cool development when your backyard shapers start tweaking templates.” As Barnes states, with a larger number of design enthusiasts experimenting with new templates, it’s easy to envision a future ripe with design innovation.

Although the potential implications of 3D printing are indeed far-reaching, critics cite concerns over intellectual property laws, and don’t envision quite so rosy a future. Through websites like Thingiverse.com, the virtual blueprints needed for manufacturing nearly anything are offered up for free, making a mastery of CAD irrelevant. Download the file for your next fin setup and it’s yours. Virtual blueprints needed for manufacturing nearly anything are offered up for free, making a mastery of CAD irrelevant. Download the file for your next fin setup and it’s yours.

Michael Weinberg, an attorney for Public Knowledge, a group dedicated to open-sourced Internet content, doesn’t believe that big businesses will be able to enforce patent infringement and that any attempt would be ill-fated. “Going forward, manufacturers actually have an opportunity to learn from history. It took the music industry a decade, millions of dollars of legal fees, and the lost goodwill of almost its entire customer base before it found the best way to deal with digital disruption. Instead of suing to try and make 3D printing disappear, the best—and only real—strategy is to find a way to embrace and monetize it.”

As this technology continues to evolve, perhaps we’ll see a future in which the current leaders in fin and board design are able to sell their design files online, mimicking the digital business models of the music and film industries. If the grand predictions of 3D printing hold, not only will we witness dramatic changes to the way we manufacture and use our equipment, but that change could very well happen in your own living room.

  • Jono J

    Yes! At this point it’s not impractical to consider the 3D printed fin as a core around which a couple layers of glass can be laminated. The printed core provides the shape and foil and the laminating process the flex and strength required.

  • Kooks McGee

    I think the best application under current cost is making custom molds for composite fins.

    • nowayose

      No offense kooks McGee but making fins out of 3D molding is with out a doubt the worst idea of all time. What you fail to realize that fins (the production, composites, RTM (RTM is a fancy way of saying injection molded), Fiberglass etc..) are not made by blow molding, roto-molding or extrusion. The majority of fins and I stress the majority of fins are made by injection molding, arguably the easiest of all the thermoplastic processing applications. The reason why 3D printing has no bases or as of right now, has no justifiable means of being used for fins is easy. It does not account for a multitude of injection molding problems. It does nothing to address the issue of materials, molds, or presses for that matter. If I proposed the question that a 90 degree angle is good or bad in a mold how would a 3-D printer answer. Unless you actually mold parts you will have no clue. Not to sound like an a-hole but I have worked for a fin company a very popular one for that matter, and I can tell you that they know about as much difference from their own A*&^%hole to what is good in a mold. 3-D printing is great ask Ford, but for fins no dice….. Why would they need it, if they have NACA files. The only thing that 3-D printing will be bring to fin production is a cross section, just as readable in Solid Works or Auto Cad and will save you a whole but load of money. 3-D printing is great for when you don’t have a reference, however ask all the fin companies what template makes them the most money I bet a 1000- 1 it is not one of their own!!!!!!!!

      • Not_a_buzzkill

        Spoken like an engineer with no imagination.

  • Motz

    I work in the 3D biz and work with the best machines available. First off people are way over their heads thinking we can just print anything! Stuff we print now are FDM or SLA. FDM is abs or plastic and objects come out porous so fins, plugs ya I suppose so but the part needs to be built a certain orientation so the foil is correct on the fin and yes they will be porous.

    SLA machines which print out in resin is the way to go which is done by beaming lasers onto each layer of resin. Heavy but they would work. Strength would be an issue but they would come out pretty and clear

    Forgot to mention 3d scanning as this is something that people should look into. A good scan on a fin or any object is when any kook will be able to just scan and print and not have to learn cad.

    Three fins in a commercial size printer will take around 12 hours to build and not a guarantee it will be printed correctly.

    Not to be a total debbie downer but a surfboard printed in a commercial printer would be heavy as shit, porous and ugly as hell…..oh and would have to be made in 3 pieces as the dims are too large for a 36″ max width currently.

  • consult

    I do 3D printing in Montreal and I actually printed a set of fins 2 years ago on my Objet (polyjet) printer.

    I rode them a few times but the material tends to warp in hi stress/heat situations.

    It was a pretty cool test though since I was actually able to ride them for a bit.

    I havent played around with molding them out of various polyurethane materials but I think it would definitely be possible and more or less the only way to make it cost effective (it was about 50$ just in printing materials to do 2 fins).

    You can check out an image here of the fins I did:
    http://tryconsult.tumblr.com/post/9668952995/a-little-sneak-peek-at-a-little-side-project-we

    • average joe

      I 100% disagree Consult, this once again tells you nothing about molding. What type of PE are you going to use GF or non GF, does this account for colorant, regrind, temperature, water content, heat and tonnage at which it is made, barrel size, shot capacity,or even regrind.. 3-D printing ( which I truly have nothing against, I see it everyday) still does nothing that Solid Works or Auto Cam can not do for fins, why even think of the justifying the cost. A shitty mold design is still a shitty mold design. Its time for the surf industry to come out of the caveman eras. No offense 3-D printing is not your messiah. You still have to build a mold

      • consult

        For sure PE molding would not be the same as Injection molding.
        I was simply stating that it would be the only cost effective way of reproducing the prints in larger quantities.
        For now the only role 3D printing would have in Fin design would be design validation before going ahead with having a mold made. (which can save you a shit ton of money in the event you made a mistake and have to scrap a mold)
        We aren’t even close to having the throughput capacity or material selection to make 3D printing an actual production tool.
        Most of the stuff that you see that have been printed and are for user end use are either really gimmicky or jewelry.
        I just did it to play around with it but I would never even consider starting to produce actual fins that could compete with commercial ones.

        • vivapina

          Well I am not sure who is missing the boat? I have been building hand made foamcore hand foiled and hand glassed quad fin sets since 1983 and require no machinary. The fins have been working
          so great glassed on …no 3d printing needed here…
          Building a new design sometimes things just sort of present themselves and evolve into new concepts…all this mass manufactured surfboard popout dreamers who want to be couch shapers..ehhh..The industry has dropped off alot of soul chasing coin.This looks like they are really folding from their roots.

          • Roy Stuart

            Maybe. I’ve been making wooden fins for the past 20 years, and have been using bumpy leading edge foils. These take up to 40 hours to shape by hand not counting glassing. When scaling the fins down to side fin size the bumps become to small to foil by hand. 3d Printing has no such issue.

      • Roy Stuart

        Oh no you don’t! We are printing hollow polycarbonate fins very successfully, and within a short space of time we have a range of fins in different sizes with various and foil section options, without having to pay for 50 or 60 moulds at vast expense. We can customise for each customer if we need to, try that with injection moulding! https://www.facebook.com/warpdrivefins

        • http://www.3d-zero.com Paolo Velcich

          Hi Roy, I agree with you. I’m not doing any 3D Printing at this toime, however I just developed a very innovative technology to be available soo (for 3D Printing X-Large items).
          But, to stay focused, while still in Italy I ran a composites manufacturing together with a friend, a very skilled surfer and shaper and I CNC machined several fins for him.
          I’m talking about Speed-surfing fins and the only acceptable way to make them was CNC machining out of thick Vetronite boards. Vetronite is laminated glass used for Printed Circuit Boards. I was working as a consultant for a customer having also a PCB manufacturing and got the high-quality Vetronite boards custom made for me.
          Far superior than any carbon prepreg fin.
          However, expensive as hell.

          It’s a totally different story if you’re talking about funboards and kites, their fins need to be flexible and much more forgiving. They can be successfully mass produced by injection molding (BTW: RTM and RIM has nothing to do with Injection Molded Thermoplastics) but 3D Printing hollow structured fins in PC or ABS-PC blend could be an excellent choice. The big advantage being the customization for each single customer. And the costs should be pretty affordable.

          If you need durability and flexibility, you can eventually consider PA-6 + 30(40)% carbon. Polyammide PA-6 commercial name is Nylon. It’s a very strong material.

  • Future Shock Consulting

    People, While Jeff might be a little ahead of himself, he’s still dead nuts on. First, the materials available today in “Additive manufacturing include not only plastics and resins but a number of metals from stainless to titanium. http://www.bikerumor.com/2013/05/20/charge-bikes-3d-printed-titanium-bike-parts-production-begins/
    Yes they’re too expensive to build fins out of today but come on, we went from flip phones to powerful handheld computers in a short 5-6 yrs. You really think that we won’t have a huge number of material choices in a very short time?

    Second and a much bigger deal is the fact that a 3D printer can print internal structures like honeycomb or the organic fractal structures inside our weight bearing bones. This means you can design fins or surfboards to be light, strong and have any number of flex characteristics impossible with foam and glass.

    Sorry injection molding dudes. While we will still have some things injection molded….at least for a while, you may want to join the blacksmiths union. That we you can all hang around a commiserate on how technology screwed you over.

    • Not_a_buzzkill

      This guy actaully gets where the future is going.

    • Roy Stuart
    • Roy Stuart

      Yes we are using hollow honeycomb structures inside our 3d printed fins.

  • Carto

    Try Hanalei Fins… These are designs that
    Are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of them, trialled and tested extensively for decades by a select few who happened to be in the right place at the right time… Still breaking design boundaries and now producing high quality moulded products but their hand crafted fibreglass fins are still epic!

  • Jon Friesell

    Does anyone have a good STL file for a speed wing fin?

    • http://www.3d-zero.com Paolo Velcich

      Hi Jon, I will give a look on my HD and I will see if I still have some.
      I’m not sure because when I relocated from Dubai I’ve got an HD stolen and lost a lot of data with it.
      However, while the fins we did were some of the latest and most advanced profiles some 6 years ago, you should be aware that every profile has a limited range of use. Each fin is good only for a certain speed and board. It’s a very tricky setup.

  • http://mckoss.com/ mckoss

    My 3D printed winglet-based surf fin is still going strong (printed of 100% solid PLA).

    http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:132116

  • rumraider

    Seems like the old days of wood is best and nothing will beat it argument, guys time and products move on and 3d printing will be the new way even though it isn’t at this point.

  • Geneva Young

    This is great post with full of information about 3D printing. I also know one of the reputed company for online printing services in Canada with excellent quality in cost effective prices.

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  • seldom seen smith

    There’s no such thing as closeouts.

  • Roy Stuart