Oct. 12, 2014

3D printers in our homes and offices make all manner of physical objects. It is an excellent tool to allow you to easily create prototypes and replacement pieces that improve your life. But 3D printers require electricity. For areas that lack electricity, what a 3D printer can do is limited.

"What do you do if the power goes out while you are right in the middle of printing something?" says 3D printing guru Joshua Pearce, an associate professor at Michigan Technological University.

Pearce has been working on designing open-source mobile digital manufacturing devices that could provide the means of production to everyone. He researches both solar power and 3D printing to develop two solutions in the form of open-source solar-powered 3D printers, capable of printing objects in any community with access to sunlight.

The first is a community-scale mobile 3D printing solution that features an array of solar photovoltaic panels and a stand-alone printer. This device is designed for schools or community centers that enables many shared users in a community to utilize the equipment.

"The first portable solar powered RepRap was a Mendel variant using off-the-shelf components and running RAMPS1.3 with an SD card add-on which allowed it to save power by printing without a computer connection." explains Pearce in the paper published in the October Issue of Challenges in Sustainability.

This system has 2 x 220 W PV panels, and 4 x 120 Ah batteries which give the user 35 hours of printing with a single charge.

The system uses an inverter to convert the DC energy from the PV and batteries to a standard AC signal. A standard power bar can be hooked up to the inverter, so it can run/charge multiple laptops or printers at once....There are adjustable, drop-down legs affixed to the modules, so they can be angled accordingly for maximum sun exposure.

"It can make high-value items for pennies, but it's not very portable," said Pearce.

The second system is smaller and ultra-portable open-source solar-powered 3D printer that fits in a suitcase. The design is based around the FoldaRap, a RepRap variant designed by French engineer, Emmanuel Gilloz. The FoldaRap is built on an extruded aluminum base that is designed to fold into a 350 x 210 x 100 mm frame. The printer is controlled by the Efika MX Smartbook, an 'ultra-portable' notebook that can easily run 7 hours on a single charge.

The ultra-portable solar-powered RepRap (Fold-a-Rap) deployed in winter. Photo: Debbie King.

This device uses lithium-ion batteries and light-weight, semi-flexible PV modules for full mobility. "The PV modules are comprised of high-efficiency mono-crystalline silicon cells. The bulk and weight are reduced by placing the cells on an aluminum backing, and coating them with a clear gel, replacing the traditional large aluminum frame and glass panel front. This system uses five 20 W modules, to give 100 W at just over 10 lb. The modules are mounted on a durable nylon fabric enclosure to prevent damage during transport." according to the paper.

This system can be easily transported in a suitcase. Those visiting an isolated community (e.g. doctors) can bring it with them to print necessary products on site in the field.

"Say you are in the Peace Corps going to an off-grid community," Pearce says. "You could put your clothes in a backpack and take this printer in your suitcase. It's a mobile manufacturing facility that can make whatever you and the community need or value. It has nearly unlimited flexibility."

Avocado pit germination holder and cross tweezers

Battery terminal separator

Peace chose three designs from Thingiverse to test print time and the accuracy of the printers. Both the community-scale and individual suitcase portable PV-powered RepRaps were found to be functional and viable for digitally fabrication. With adequate sunlight, the community-scale RepRap was capable of hours of continuous printing; while the second design, the portable system also enables a few prints per day on one charge.

The initial costs of the community and suitcase systems were $2,500 and $1,300 respectively, and Peace expects that the prices will drop considerably when the cost of PV and the open-source 3D printers continue to fall. And continual reductions in the energy consumption of RepRaps will also reduce the size and cost of the PV and battery storage systems for both designs.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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Dan O'Brien wrote at 11/3/2014 1:19:42 PM:

Very interesting.... I wonder if it'd be possible to develop a 3d printable solar sterling engine generator, to enable these to become more reproducible...

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