Three-dimensional printing is the new industrial revolution. Members of the Boulder hackerspace Solid State Depot say interest in 3-D printing will only continue to grow as more people learn to use the technology.
"If you're making one to 10 of something, 3-D printing is almost certainly one of the fastest and cheapest ways to make it," says Rob Bryan, a member of the Depot's board of directors.
But it's a wasteful process, says member Ty Syt. And that's not just because components of a printer are often made in China and have the same carbon footprint of any item manufactured there and shipped across the world. It's also because what the printers create is often hard to recycle.
The filament, or string, that is fed through an extruder to print things three-dimensionally, is usually plastic, although some printers can use metal. (Most printed items around the Depot are plastic trinkets that can fit in one's palm.) Though the technology has improved — "The software has gotten so much better at telling you when it's going to be a bad print," says Depot member Ryan St. Pierre — bad prints still happen, and happen often.
Says John Wedler, a Colorado Springs resident who spent six months learning to 3-D print on a Solidoodle unit: "Maybe once or twice out of 100 times, you'll have a print that comes out exactly the way you wanted it the first time."
Wedler says he has several five-gallon trash bins full of printed parts that came out wrong. Those parts were created with about two spools of filament, or four pounds of plastic.
Chris Vestal, president of Pikes Peak Makerspace, says he also has a couple of pounds of bad prints, and expects that much of the 3-D printing Springs community has been saving their bad prints, too.
Their plans? To grind them back into filament. Vestal says PPM is planning to buy a grinder/extruder in early 2015.
Something similar is in the works at Eight Days a Week, a Boulder imaging and copy center. There, bad prints go into the "graveyard," a cardboard box full of colorful plastic bits that lives underneath a desk. Simon Kugel, a designer for the shop and the resident 3-D printing expert, doesn't throw the bits away because he plans to reuse them one day.
Eight Days hasn't accumulated enough of the bad prints yet to need to do something with them. The owner, Sam Sussman, says that much of the filament they use is PLA plastic, which is cornstarch-based and will eventually break down into organic matter in a landfill. But ABS plastic is more durable, Kugel says, and the shop also prints ABS plastic items.
And with ABS, even grinding isn't a be-all, end-all. The more times a material is recycled, the more it degrades.
"Ideally, you only want to melt it once," says Syt, from Solid State Depot. "Also, it's cheaper to just buy more filament. A spool of filament is around $15 to $25."
Some printed items actually can be recycled, depending on what kind of plastic they're made out of, says Teresa Weston, operator at Eco-Cycle in Boulder. Those items must go to Eco-Cycle, which operates a service to collect hard-to-recycle items, not the city's recycling center. (Solid State Depot members haven't tried to recycle bad prints yet.)
But variables in printer processes bring different sustainability issues. About a block away from the Depot is Boulder Engineering Studio, where a larger, enclosed 3-D printer sits making printer-type noises in the corner of one work room. John English, partner and CTO of Boulder Engineering Studio, explains how this printer modifies the chemical makeup of the plastic it is printing with — rendering it unable to be recycled.
He points out the special ventilation system attached to the printer, directing fumes outside. The printer runs almost nonstop, he says.
While 3-D printing may have its problems, it does create opportunities for items that can be environmentally friendly in other ways. The CompoKeeper, a big compost bin with mechanisms for sealing off its contents and repelling insects and pets, was produced by the Boulder Engineering Studio via a 3-D printer. English's colleague worked with the local team for about a year and a half, from initial concept to prototyping, manufacturing and production.
"3-D printing was fundamental for that process," English says. "We couldn't have gone down that path in the same way. It would have been a mixture of more time, more work and more money without the 3-D printer."