Print me a new reel

Print me a new reel

Tracy&James | Thursday, 8 September 2016

The design of reels for fly fishing has remained pretty constant since someone first had the bright idea of attaching a drum containing the line to a fishing rod. Sure the materials used to manufacture them have changed throughout the years but the basic revolving drum configuration has stood the test of time. I don’t see that changing in future years either, but I do think that how we produce and purchase reels is going to be subject to significant development.

I suspect everyone reading this has heard of 3D printing.  About a decade or so ago this emerged into the mainstream as a technology for rapid prototyping.  If you wanted to produce a physical model of a set of components to show that they fitted together as expected then 3D printing was much faster and cheaper, in terms of materials and labour, than having parts machined conventionally.  Any unexpected aspects of the design could then be tweaked and the rapid prototyping cycle repeated, prior to committing to the expense of full manufacture.  At this time 3D printing was limited to polymer materials, i.e. ‘plastics’, and of limited use for all but a few actual products.  

Although 3D polymer printing was cutting edge technology back then, this is exactly what is available to purchase now by the home enthusiast.  Already a number of people have printed basic fly reels – frames and spools are very easy to design and, once mated with a metal spindle and a leaf spring,a functional (albeit ugly from those I’ve seen) click-drag reel can be assembled.

Obviously the cutting edge of 3D printing has moved on significantly from the machines that are now in ‘home’ use.  The most significant change was the introduction of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), a process in which layers of metal powder are deposited and then sintered (made solid) with precisely aligned lasers.  This allowed complex metal structures to be formed in a single piece that would otherwise have been impossible to machine.  About this time the name ‘rapid prototyping’ was dropped in favour of ‘additive manufacturing’ indicating that the structures produced were, in some cases, the final product (given some minor surface treatment etc.).  Successive generations of DMLS machines had ever increasing print resolutions that enabled considerablyfiner details to be manufactured, meaning assemblies with tight tolerances were no longer a problem.  The software running the machines was also advanced significantly to the point where they can take an exported file from pretty much any generic CAD software, interpret it and decide on the best way to go about printing the shape depicted.

DMLS machines are still very expensive (hundreds of thousands for the very best), and I’m not sure that this technology will ever enter the home – fusing metals produces fumes and I’m not sure people are going to want to install extraction systems (or get planning permission to do so).  However, this does not mean that this technology is out of reach for the budding reel designer.  Companies are regularly cropping up that offer a DMLS capability, and all you need to do is transfer a digital CAD file to them – i.e. you can simply e-mail them the design to be printed and they’ll post back the hardware (with an invoice Smile )

So what will the production of fly reels look like in the future?  I can imagine a couple of scenarios; firstly there will be the home designers – people who have a creative flair or who just want to give it a go (some engineering knowledge will still be required – you don’t want a reel that seizes if the temperature changes etc.).  All they need is some CAD software and contact with a suitable DMLS service provider, and they could be ready to print tomorrow.  I suspect we’ll see this sort of design shared, improved, customised etc.  I think we’ll see discussions on the board (or elsewhere) regarding the drawing files before too long.  Secondly, I can envisage the emergence of professional individual designers (probably offering all sorts of products, not just fly reels).  Here they will make money by selling you their latest, sexy fly reel in CAD form.  Issues regarding digital rights management will have to be resolved but this is no different to the challenges facing all digital media owners at the moment.  There will be no need for warranties or service departments because if something fails you would simply e-mail off the affected part for re-printing.  I suspect this is not great news for current reel manufacturers, but they have a few years left to capitalise (my gut feeling is that high-end products are going to be most affected).  Personally I’m looking forward to seeing what designs emerge for reels, as stated earlier it’s possible to print details that are nomachinable so they could be very special.

Tracy and I will be at the Hampshire Country Sports show in Alresford on Sunday so please come along a say hello if you’re attending.  I think we’re running an accuracy comp or maybe distance (or both)

Have a great weekend, James.

  1. 3D printing