If 3D printers were to ever become a household item, a device like the Filabot may play a big role in making it happen.
Conceived by 34-year-old Tyler McNaney, the unglamorously industrial prototype turns junk plastic back into the raw, re-useable formation that serves as the source material for our modern-day replicator machines. We're talking about recycling disposable plastics such as water bottles and containers directly into objects such as an iPhone case. You can even use the Filabot to recycle those 3D printed objects into something else.
This changes things in a few significant ways. Like typical inkjet printers, much of the expense of "printing" involves the cost of having to constantly replace the "ink." A kilogram of 3D printer filament, a spooled yarn-like material that serves as the "ink" for 3D printing machines, sells for about $50 (and you thought regular printer cartridges were pricey) with project costs having the potential to run quite high since object designs often go through several runs of prototyping and failed prints before getting it just right.
McNaney came up with Filabot to address the high cost of plastic filaments, and in doing so effectively made the whole business of designing, building and assembling products a closed-loop process. Don't like how your printed plastic cup turned out? Put it back in the recycler and try again. Most importantly, the ability to freely experiment in a cost prohibitive way speaks, at it's core, to a maker's rugged DIY spirit. Besides the out-of-pocket savings, a closed-loop manufacturing process also helps keep plastics out of landfills and oceans, thus pleasing both hipsters and hippies alike.
The current Filabot prototype is about the size of an inkjet printer and works similarly to a meat grinder. Discarded junk like packaging or shampoo bottles are first broken down into pieces and funneled through a a series of chambers as each substance gets ground up and melted down. The molten plastic is then extruded out of a nozzle that can be adjusted to dispense 3mm or 1.75mm filaments. After extrusion, the filament passes through a sizing roller so that it'll be the correct diameter for printing.
“The range of materials keeps growing. Filabot is expected to process most of the thermoplastics,” he says. “So far the plastics that work are HDPE, LDPE, ABS, and NYLON.”
The project was funded via Kickstarter around this time last year and since then McNaney has been hard at work readying a production version of the device for launch. He warns that the concept in practice does have a few potentially problematic kinks, such as air bubbles and inconsistent diameter sizes, but even with these irregularities, filaments are fully usable.