Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Compact 3D Printers Could Start Using Recycled Plastics Soon

Many of us think creating three-dimensional objects on your desktop directly from a computer design file is a thing of the future, possibly the distant future. Not so. This future is already here. As you read this, there are many of desktop 3D printers using various types of plastics to make three-dimensional objects and products, many of them quite complex.

An intricate lamp manufactured by 3D printing

Designed by the artist Bathsheba Grossman, this intricate lamp was produced by 3D printing.

The objects range from kitchen utensils to lamps to highly complex medical devices, and even to replacement or upgrade parts for the printer or a completely new printer. How does it work?

Greatly simplified, a 3D printer, guided by a CAD (computer automated design) file, deposits micro-thin layers of a raw material—usually a plastic resin in filament or powder form—one on top of the other and fuses them to form the object depicted in the CAD file. Design freedom is nearly unlimited, since intricate shapes, interior voids, and even moving parts can be created in a single process with high precision.

Forecasts are positive for these printers. They could enable virtually anyone to download a file and build a replacement part for an appliance or create a coffee mug, and that’s only the simpler consumer side of it. Larger, more sophisticated 3D printers have recently made a robot spider (see photo below) for surveillance and rescue work, and surgical scaffolding to hold human tissue as it is implanted in a human body to replace damaged parts. Material that mimics bone is currently being tested as well.

Filabot machine grinds and extrudes recycled plastic packaging for 3D printing

The Filabot desktop grinder/extruder creates feedstock for 3D printers by recycling plastic packaging.

A new and exciting aspect to this is that plastic objects like bottles and packaging could be recycled to make new products on compact 3D printers. An entrepreneurial mechanical engineering student at Vermont Technical College in Milton, VT, is working to make that happen right now. Tyler McNaney has developed a compact (24x12x12 inches) desktop grinder/extruder to let printer owners grind used milk jugs, soda bottles or other plastic parts, then extrude the plastic filament from which many desktop printers make 3D products. That means that raw material costs for owners of 3D printers would be virtually zero.

I spotted McNaney’s Filabot extrusion system on Kickstart.com, a website that uses crowd-sourcing to raise the funding that helps entrepreneurs get their new product ideas off the ground. What caught my attention first was the diminutive size of the extruder, and then I saw that it enables in-house recycling. Let me be absolutely clear: It can be done inside a house.

Robot rescue spider made using 3D printing technology

Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute created the nylon parts of this spidery rescue robot by 3D printing.

McNaney came to Kickstarter because it is designed to generate product development funding for entrepreneurs like him, and for his Filabot project, it is outdoing itself. McNaney’s goal was to raise $10,000 by January 23, 2012. When I saw his Kickstarter page on January 20, 127 backers had already pledged $22,438. UPDATE: When funding closed on  January 23rd, 156 backers had pledged a total of $32,330. Many of the nearly 100 comments on the site are from backers who own desktop 3D printers, and who seem to like the idea of recycling their soda bottles to make feedstock. It is hard not to like a material cost of zero.

High Speed Video Shows How 3D Printing Is Done

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