The Promise and Peril of 3D Printing

A new small-scale plastic recycling machine could make 3D printing more environmentally and economically sustainable.

  • Tyler McNaney and his 3D printer
    Lost amid all the noise about 3D printing is the question of whether it's economic or environmentally sustainable.
    Photo By David Neff

  • Tyler McNaney and his 3D printer

Tyler McNaney didn’t get into 3D printing for the usual reasons. Rather than creating things out of seemingly nothing, he was motivated more by the idea of transforming existing items into something new.

To that end, McNaney designed the Filabot, a breadbox-sized machine that melts existing plastic waste into the filament used by 3D printers. In that way, today’s water bottle can be recycled into the printing “ink” that forms tomorrow’s iPhone case.

In late 2011, the Vermont Technical College student launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter with the goal of raising $10,000. A month later, he closed at more than triple his goal. The funding allowed him to further develop his invention, which can now process a variety of thermoplastics, including nylon.

McNaney, a self-described altruist, plans to start selling the Filabot this year. He priced it at $350 during the campaign and hopes to keep it at that level so it can reach a wide range of users, particularly in the developing world.

People in developing countries have plastic all around them, he says. “If they could use 3D printing as a means to make something as simple as a fork, that would be amazing.”

McNaney’s creation looks to solve two of the biggest current issues with 3D printing. At around $40 per one-kilogram spool, the plastic filament used in many home devices is still too expensive for the mainstream. The Filabot can eliminate that cost and get rid of the waste produced by printing test objects, since those items can simply be recycled into more filament.

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