A common complaint levelled against 3D printing is that the process is too expensive to ever be suitable for the widespread production of day-to-day objects. It’s not the price of the machinery that does the damage, but rather the cost of filament. Considering 1 kg of plastic filament, whether ABS or PLA, will set you back about £22, if you plan to print items regularly the cost quickly ramps up. As there is no economy of scale with additive manufacturing, the consistently high cost makes mass production pointless.
The prototype of the FilaMaker, which was exhibited at last week’s Maker Faire in Rome, could potentially change that. The brainchild of Marek Senicky, this little device takes previously printed ABS objects, grinds them into chunks, heats them up and then extrudes them into a filament that can be re-used in an ABS 3D printer.
At the event, Senicky successfully demonstrated the FilaMaker’s capabilities, extruding 1mm of filament per minute. The recycled material looks tough too, with a 0.05 mm dimensional tolerance and no air bubbles. That is not to say the machine is the finished article, however. Senicky’s next step is to launch a campaign on Indiegogo to raise the funds for a batch of finished FilaMakers. He claims the final product, which should retail around the £420-mark, will be capable of 2 mm per minute thanks to a stronger motor and should be 5 kg lighter than the prototype, which weighs 24 kg.
Though it may not yet be the finished article, the mere possibility of Senicky’s device is a large step towards a more affordable and greener 3D printing process. Unsure about using expensive filament for an object that will only be useful for a limited time frame? Afraid of printing a prototype, in case an undetected design flaw means you wasted your material? With the FilaMaker you know that even an abject failure or useless item can be recycled and reused.
ABS Vs. PLA
Currently, PLA is considered the more eco-friendly of the main consumer filaments. As it comes from plant starch, it is biodegradable and, generally, non-toxic. ABS, though tougher, more impact-resistant and glossier, is petroleum-based and so goes straight to the landfill once it’s no longer useful.
If ABS were recyclable, however, it would be far more eco-friendly than the compostable PLA. While PLA will biodegrade, it requires a long-term chemical process that must be enacted under very specific conditions, so many PLA objects end up in the bin anyway.
So, contrary to what we’ve all been predicting, it could well be ABS, as opposed to PLA, that has the green qualities required to support the sustainable future of the technology. Of course, it doesn’t solve many of the other drawbacks of ABS – its flammability, its toxic odour during printing and its lack of food-safety, which makes it unusable for many common household items.
Yet the FilaMaker shows, once again, that the biggest brains in the 3D printing industry are firmly focused on addressing the most commonly cited shortcomings of the technology.