The relatively high cost of plastic filament – and its quite conveniently almost equal pricing across the market – has definitely been one of the more apparent reasons hindering the wider adoption of the most visible 3D printing tech in the market – the plastic extrusion machinery. This problem has been of concern to Joshua Pearce and his team from Michigan Tech, who are hoping to solve this problem with their current research study, which has resulted in a device called RecycleBot.
Pearce is an associate professor of (brace yourself) materials science and engineering and electrical and computer engineering, and leads a team of researchers; their take on this environmental/cost issue is centered around plastic milk jugs. The idea behind the project — which started back in 2010 — is simply to take a standard used milk jug/plastic carton, get rid of the labels, clean it properly before shredding and running it through the RecycleBot melting and reformatting machine – ending up with a new string of recycled filament.
Sound too good to be true? At this point there are in fact several challenges still needing to be addressed before this could be turned from a really interesting prototype model to something suitable for wider use. One of the more burning issues is related to the material properties and quality, as high-density polyethylene – which is what the jugs are made of – as such, is not the ideal material for 3D printing. However, the team is experimenting and positive about solving this issue.
Besides the obvious benefit that RecycleBot can offer, namely enabling a wider adoption rate of 3D printers through cost savings — recycling material in this way also creates added value primarily associated with recycling per se – saving scarce resources and thus benefitting the environment as a whole. The research team has calculated that creating filament with a RecycleBot only uses a tenth of the energy needed to manufacture it from scratch through conventional means. A solution such as this could also be of use in areas with shortages of basic commodities – but not of reusable waste.
Pierce and his team is not be the first – and probably not the last — to tackle this problem. In January, Filabot – a recycling machine using plastic bottles for creating new 3D printer filament — tripled its pledge goal on Kickstarter, illustrating the demand, and support, from the market for something like this. Pearce himself describes the Filabot as being a sort of a combination of a RecycleBot and a RepRap extruder head.
The open-source ethos, as well as other ideological similarities are strongly related to both projects, so it comes as no surprise that neither Filabot nor RecycleBot have been created without a knowledge of one another. If you want to take a closer look at Pearce’s design and ideas, a good starting point would be this Thingiverse page. You can also watch some clips of the first iterations on the team’s Tumblr here.