Aug 25, 2015 | By Simon

As we continue to see a number of new 3D printing technologies pop up over the horizon, we’re also starting to see an increase in processes that make use of waste materials for recycling materials through a 3D printer to create new objects.  Among others that we’ve seen in the past year alone include filaments made from discarded CDs as well as filament made from discarded coffee grounds.  

But while the sustainable filaments are one thing, is it possible that a 3D printer itself can be made from waste materials?  Thanks to recent efforts from the UK charity Techfortrade, yes - it is!

The charity - whose mission is to find, foster and support sustainable and scalable technology solutions that facilitate trade and alleviate poverty - has been actively developing ways to put 3D printers into the hands of those in developing countries to enable them to create their own customized solutions.  Their solution came in creating a piece of software that enables creators to take e-waste components and use them to build 3D printers.

The software, which was spearheaded by the charity’s Technical Director Matt Rogge, aims to put a 3D printer in as many hands as possible using existing materials.  According to Matt, putting a 3D printer into the hands of these users can help them gain access to a wide variety of educational, medical and mechanical materials that would have otherwise been inaccessible.

This isn’t the first time that Matt’s seen firsthand just how much of an impact a 3D printer can have in a rural community, either.  Previously, he was involved in building rural water systems in Panama and saw how much of an impact they were having on the community.  

Soon after his trip to Panama, he made it his mission to help provide other rural communities around the world with the same capabilities, however the number of specialized or proprietary parts required to keep these printers functioning was too high to make that feasible.  Parts including power supplies, heated print beds, stepper motors, end stops and smooth rods, among other components, all needed to be imported through customs - an expensive process that can double or even triple the market price of each item.

In Oaxaca, Mexico - where he had been working with a local Fablab on developing filaments from recycled plastics - Matt came up with the idea of creating 3D printer design software that could handle all of the design changes and modifications required to make and maintain a functional printer in the developing world using the lowest cost, local source of components possible – e-waste.

According to Matt, the inspiration came after seeing a number of people donate old computers to a group that repaired them and turned the working computers over to local schools.  

The result of his efforts is called the RETR3D project, a framework dedicated to affordable 3D printing equipment for developing economies that can be locally sourced, locally maintained and locally improved.

“We believe that 3D printing can be as transformative in developing countries as the mobile phone,” explains Matt.

“As with the mobile phone, which has already changed the way people across the Africa communicate, introducing 3D printing at the community level offers the potential to localize manufacturing. Which is why we are making it possible to build Retr3d machines from the thousands of tonnes of e-waste which would otherwise end up as landfill.”

To create a 3D printer design, Retr3d creates a unique Bill of Parts based on materials that a user has access to.  Because of the unique assembly-building capabilities,  Retr3d can create printers from different mismatched parts gathered from the e-waste - meaning that it’s more than likely that no two 3D printers made on the platform would be the same.  The designs are created using a series of Python scripts that are run in FreeCAD. When the design is finished, a folder is created with all of the design files and STL files needed to build the printer. With Plater and Slic3r integration, Retr3d can even arrange and slice the STL files for the user.

Currently, Matt and the rest of the Techfortrade are working with groups of entrepreneurs in Tanzania, Kenya and West African countries to teach them how to both build the e-waste 3D printers as well as help with seed-funding the micro businesses to see if they are sustainable.

"We think there is the potential to create small community-based 'digital blacksmiths' – small businesses in places like Nairobi to make things that are of use to the community, such as educational aids, water and sanitation devices, medical devices or toys, as well as offering 3D printer services to the community, which they eventually receive payments for," said Techfortrade Chief Executive William Hoyle in an interview with the IB Times.

"Our hope is that over the next two years, we'll be able to create a blueprint for how these businesses can operate in a sustainable way, to eventually create a network of social enterprises working to use 3D printing to solve problems in the developing world."

With 20 to 50 million metric tons of e-waste disposed of worldwide every year, Matt’s project couldn’t have come at a better time; not only is he helping put a 3D printer in the hands of users in rural communities, he’s also finding a unique purpose for reusing the growing problem of discarded electrical waste.   

“I love to see people who become involved in the project talk about their goals and how they plan on using 3D printing as an effective way to achieve them,” added Matt.  

For those that want to try Retr3d for themselves, Matt has opened up the platform for everybody around the world to build their own 3D printer no matter where you are.   

Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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