For as long as I can remember, I have been attending the annual Yankee Steam-Up event held at The New England Wireless and Steam Museum in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Here, you will find exhibits of working steam engines (several with flywheels larger than 10 feet in diameter) dating back to the mid 1800’s and early 1900’s. These engines were the driving force behind the industrial revolution and allowed factories to be built away from the banks of rivers since they were no longer dependent on water wheels to generate power. One of the major manufacturers of steam engines, the Corliss Steam Engine Company, founded by George H. Corliss, was located nearby in Providence, Rhode Island. The museum displays what is believed to be the only Corliss steam engine which still operates under steam power today.
Unlike modern internal combustion engines, where all of the moving components such as crankshafts, pistons and valves are hidden; steam engines are wide open and all of the complex linkages driving the valves and pistons are completely visible from the outside. Perhaps this is why flocks of engineers and gearheads like me show up at the annual event every fall. It is amazing to see tons of steel (literally) in motion just feet away from where you’re standing. The complex linkages controlling the valve mechanisms can be mesmerizing to watch. As someone who has been using CAD software to design and 3D printing to prototype, I can’t imagine how such complex assemblies were created 150+ years ago. It’s important to reflect on what was possible with such limited technology and equally important to take advantage of the technology we have available at our fingertips today.
I’ve heard people saying 3D printing could be the next industrial revolution, so as a tribute from one revolution to another, I set out to create a few 3D printed models of steam engines. Of course they cannot be run on steam since they’re made from acrylic plastic, but compressed air works just fine. I based the engines on some 2D drawings I found online and modified the engines slightly knowing they would be 3D printed. For example, there are certain features such as holes that print better when oriented vertically so I was sure to design the parts so they could all be printed in the desired orientation. While the tolerances of our 3D printers are quite good, I designed the pistons so they could be sanded smooth before assembling so the air pressure would be optimized when running the engine. Most of the parts were printed on our Objet30 desktop printer, but I chose to print a few parts in VeroClear on our Connex 500. I tapped the threaded screw holes by hand after printing rather than attempting to print the threads since the screws are quite small. It was equally fun designing the model in SolidWorks as it was to 3D print and assemble the model. After visiting the New England Wireless and Steam museum and seeing the extraordinary examples of engineering from generations ago, I almost feel guilty using these modern tools to create my models! Click Here To See Them In Action! (external YouTube link)