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When you’re hanging off a cliff hundreds of feet in the air, you can’t worry about the quality of your equipment. You need to devote 100% of your focus to your next hand placement and finding the perfect toehold. Many climbers stick to the tried-and-true when it comes to quickdraws and belay devices.
However, 3D printing offers an economical alternative to pricier gear. What are the limits of this technology? And how safe are devices made via this method compared to commercially produced equipment?
A Brief Overview of 3D Printing
How do 3D printers work? The process involves depositing material one tiny layer at a time to create an item. The idea for the technology stemmed from the way mineral deposits form stalactites deep inside caves. Like an inkjet printer creates images by depositing dots, 3D printers place dabs of material according to a pattern.
Scientists refer to the process of 3D printing as “additive manufacturing.” This style of production uses fewer raw materials than traditional techniques. Subtractive manufacturing refers to the process of cutting away raw materials to arrive at a finished product. This process can waste up to 30 pounds of material per one-pound product.
Benefits of 3D Printing for the Climbing World
One distinct advantage of 3D printing, then, is preserving raw materials. This conservation isn’t only a matter for environmentalists to consider. The process will also save money in the long run.
Whitney Potter, an avid climber and 3D printing expert, set out to create holds for a rock wall using the technology. He soon discovered typical materials would not build the necessary strength to support body weight.
His first attempt resulted in a weak, brittle hold due to air gaps in the substrate. Though he had the ability to design a more solid hold, each one would take 12 to 24 hours to print and cost twice as much as a commercially produced model.
Potter soon realized that making 100 such grips to cover a climbing wall was problematic. Then, inspiration struck. Instead of making the holds themselves, he 3D printed the molds. He then used a two-part polyurethane product to create holds that were flexible, but not as much as silicon.
Another use for 3D printing technology in climbing is in the creation of carabiners. Please note: You should not use 3D-printed carabiners for climbing. Professional organizations set strict standards for personal protective equipment. They must undergo rigorous testing to ensure they can hold sufficient weight. Most carabiners produced using this technology support load carries between 15 and 35 kilograms. That’s only 66 pounds maximum, too light for the majority of climbers.
However, these 3D-printed devices have a host of other uses when rock climbing. You can use them to attach your keys to your backpack. If you have long hair, keep a stash of ties handy to hold back those pesky strands blowing in your eyes during a climb.
One Remarkable 3D Printing Journey
Currently, manufacturers aren’t using 3D technology to mass-produce gear — yet. However, the Swedish founder and CEO of SolidEngineer experimented by climbing Mt. Everest using equipment printed with this tech. Björn Lindwall realized he could provide highly customized gear for his expedition up the world’s tallest natural structure.
He began his journey by printing crampons — the attachments mountaineers place on their shoes for added grip. His engineering team helped design the steel bar to attach the crampons to his boots. After that, he set out to create a satellite phone casing. When both of his inventions passed muster on smaller, but still treacherous, mountains, he headed for his goal. He reached the summit and made it down safely with the help of 3D printed gear.
Limitations of the Technology
Even Lindwall dissuades other climbers from imitating his feat. The technology is too new, and many who use 3D printers don’t fully understand what they’re doing. When you climb, faulty gear can result in death.
One problem engineers need to remedy is the materials used in the process. Typical 3D printers use a type of plastic as their “ink.” But this substance pales beside metals like steel in terms of strength. Additionally, plastic wears out over time, forming weak spots. If their equipment gives out, climbers can suffer whippers from dangerous heights.
Stronger materials like silicon exist but prove cost-prohibitive for many. And until these materials undergo rigorous testing to determine their load capacity, climbers should stick to the tried-and-true equipment that saves lives.
That said, current technology has shown promise for making holds for climbing walls. It allows designers to isolate boulders from challenging climbs and recreate them. Such grips provide a more realistic training experience for athletes intent on scaling a particular route.
As technology continues to advance, 3D printing will no doubt offer the sport of climbing more cost-effective ways of producing equipment. And lower prices on gear mean more people can afford to indulge their love of cliff faces.
The Future of 3D Printing and Climbing Gear
By allowing manufacturers to save money and materials, 3D printing promises to transform the climbing world. Though the future for 3D printing is still unclear, it has a future, and that’s tough to argue.