Servo Magazine ( December 2016 )

3D Printing: Too Good?

By Bryan Bergeron    View In Digital Edition  

Since purchasing my first 3D printer nearly a decade ago, I’ve contributed several hundred pounds of ABS and PLA plastic to landfills. Sure, it’s great to crank out prototypes of parts that I’ll eventually send out to be fabricated in metal or solid ABS, but I’ve found the practice leads to a lot of wasted plastic. Imperfectly printed plastic parts don’t lend themselves to repurposing. Plus, it’s easy to amass a collection of empty filament spools unless you purchase plastic filament in bulk rolls.

The root of the problem is that 3D printing is simply too good in that the printed prototypes outlive their usefulness. Most of my 3D printed plastic prototypes serve their purpose for perhaps five minutes. However, ABS plastic and even so-called biodegradable polylactic acid (PLA) will probably survive decades in the environment.

PLA can potentially biodegrade in as little as two or three months, but that’s only under ideal conditions, including exposure to lots of sunlight. When buried in a landfill, widgets printed with PLA can last as long as those made of ABS plastic.

As an analogy, I recall when PCs first appeared on the marketplace. These early computers were built like tanks, with thick metal construction, ample RFI shielding, and huge power supplies. In short, they were built to last decades. Who knew Moore’s Law would reduce the half-life for a PC to only a year or two?

These same PCs are now either in computer museums or a landfill. Manufacturers eventually learned to use lightweight plastics and cost-saving designs that led to virtually disposable computing platforms.

What the world needs is an affordable 3D printer that extrudes a substance that can create the equivalent of disposable plastic plates, cups, and eating utensils, with the caveat that the plates, cups, and spoons can be recycled by the printer. Ideally, you could simply stuff the printed plastic objects into your printer’s input port — akin to the reactor in Back to the Future.

Sure, there have been shredders and solvent-based systems developed for repurposing plastic, but none of these technologies have proven simple and economical enough for widespread adoption.

Whatever the technology, the recycling — like the 3D printing — should be local and under direct user control. So, what will it take to get to this 3D nirvana? I think that the first step is to stop focusing solely on the quality and speed of 3D printing, and look at the recycling possibilities. We should also focus on printing classes of objects that might be normally considered disposable

Sure, there are valid reasons to use a 3D printer. The technology saves time, money, and ultimately (at least in theory) provides a higher quality final product. With a 3D printer and a good grasp of 3D drawing software, you can go places. With a little effort and investment, you can do so without leaving a huge footprint.  SV

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