Jan 18, 2016 | By Alec

The open source 3D printing revolution is ongoing with full power, and has already made affordable making possible in the far corners of the world. Well, not quite the far corners, as even the most modest home-made 3D printer requires a stable power grid to work. But even that could be changing, as a team of researchers from the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab has just successfully tested and shared a very intriguing innovative machine: an open source, solar-powered RepRap 3D printer.

The Pearce Research Group at the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology center, as dedicated RepRap enthusiasts probably know, are focused on developing open and sustainable technology solutions. Through that focus they have already repeatedly run into what solar photovoltaic technology can do, while they are also firm supporters of the RepRap 3D printing movement. The combination of the two was logical, and the question arose if the time and energy consuming 3D printers could be powered by something as fickle as solar power. The answer is yes, as is apparent from the study by Jephias Gwamuri, Dhiogo Franco, Khalid Khan, Lucia Gauchia and Joshua Pearce. Entitled ‘High-Efficiency Solar-Powered 3-D Printers for Sustainable Development,’ it recently appeared in the journal Machines.

As the researchers explain in the paper, 3D printing is still impossible in off-grid communities – of which there are many in the developing world. Approximately a billion people on the planet are still without access to electricity, though the decreasing costs of solar photovoltaic-powered mobile systems have proven to be an interesting solution. “IEA predicts that by 2030 population growth particularly in sub-Saharan Africa will surpass the pace of electricity access, resulting in 75% of the population of sub-Sahara Africa not having access to electricity by 2040,” they say.

More importantly, those people could definitely benefit from low-cost 3D printing innovations for the developments of tools and missing components. “The declining prices of 3-D printers, together with parallel development of open source-appropriate technology (OSAT),has enabled the opportunity for 3-D printers to be used for sustainable development in many impoverished areas of the world/ OSAT can vary in complexity from high-end medical equipment or simple agricultural tools. OSAT presents the users with the opportunity to modify and improve the physical designs of their printers in line with their needs resulting in explosive mushrooming of hardware developers,” they explain. Household items, small farm tools, and even scientific or medical equipment like prosthetics could all be realized.

In this study, the researchers have therefore decided to merge solar photovoltaic-powered mobile systems with a delta 3D printing system to limit the energy consumption as much as possible, in part made possible by recent 3D printing innovations. “Improvements in print bed surface treatment, the adoption of low temperature filament materials, such as biodegradable polylactic acid (PLA), decreased the number of stepper motors in novel 3-D printers designs and has enabled the elimination of the heated bed, resulting in a drastic reduction of printer power consumption,” they explain. The battery they used was a polymer Li-ion rechargeable battery pack (14.8 V, 20 Ah), which features an overcharge protection circuit that  enables it to serve as an energy backup/reserve during low/no light conditions.

The result is a particularly capable 3D printing setup. This solar-PV-powered system is designed to run the RepRap 3D printer regardless of solar flux, and can be built for around $1000 (with most of the costs going towards the solar cells). Theoretically, the machine can even be upgraded to a syringe printer, vinyl cutter, and PCB mill using free designs. In addition to the electronic components, the RepRap itself was used to provide a conversion kit which was designed in OpenSCAD, a parametric open-source script-based solid modeling program. “3D printed conversion parts are used to secure the panels to the printer frame, as well as to protect vulnerable printer components, such as the Melzi controller board, Li-Ion battery pack and the power supply circuitry during transit,” they say. “The whole assembly easily fits into a 36 inch (91 cm) drop-bottom wheeled duffel for transport to a location of interest.”

3D printable solar panel modules.

But of course the real question is: can it consistently operate on solar power alone? As associate professor Joshua Pearce of Michigan Tech explains, the answer is yes. The electrical system has been specifically designed for and tested outdoors under different operating conditions. “(1) PV charging battery and running 3-D printer; (2) printing under low insolation; (3) battery powering the 3-D printer alone; (4) PV charging the battery only; and (5) battery fully charged with PV-powered 3-D printing,” he says. “The results show the system performed as required under all conditions providing feasibility for adoption in off-grid rural communities.” He further added that these types of machines had the potential to be extensively used in poor rural areas and even reduce poverty through employment creation, as well as ensuring a constant supply of scarce products for isolated communities.

In short, the machine did exactly what it was supposed to do, and performed as predicted. Its implications are clear: anyone in the far corners of African communities can now set up a mini factory in their backyard, using nothing but the sun as a source. It certainly has the potential to change the very nature of those communities. If you would like to see more information about this solar-powered 3D printer, check out its page on Appropedia, where you can find the full plans, electronic schematics, CAD designs, and software.



Posted in 3D Printer



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Chandler Grieco wrote at 1/27/2016 3:39:05 PM:

i like it

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