Hey everyone! I’m Dennon Oosterman, co-founder of ReDeTec Inc and co-inventor of ProtoCycler, the first fully integrated and automated filament recycler for 3D printers. In this post, I’m going to tell you how we at ReDeTec got where we are today.
The Wonder and Waste of 3D Printing
I first started 3D printing more than three years ago when I was taking an engineering physics course at the University of British Columbia. Though I’d already become accustomed to making pretty much whatever I wanted using the combination of a waterjet, mill, and lathe, 3D printing completely blew me away.
With 3D printing, I didn’t have to spend a full day in the student machine shop just to make a part that would (of course) end up needing revision. I didn’t have to go through a 40-hour training course to use it. I didn’t even have to worry about designing my parts so they were easy to make. All I needed to do was click print — it was beautiful!
Fast-forward a few months and it quickly became apparent to me that 3D printing still has a few serious drawbacks. While it nearly eliminates the time and skill required to create pretty much anything, it’s also very expensive and wasteful. It costs $30, minimum, for a 1kg spool of filament, and that can easily rise to $60 or even $90 depending on supplier and quality. And 3D printing generally incurs waste with every print, due to rafting and support material; this gets much worse when you’re iterating through designs, or can’t always get perfect prints. The result was that, a few months into 3D printing, I’d saved myself a lot of time, but had literally filled garbage bins with $50/kg plastic. That’s some expensive garbage!
Finding a Way to Recycle 3D Printing Plastic
The thing is, the plastic itself doesn’t actually cost that much. Buying plastic in its raw or natural form is closer to $5 per kilo than $50. And 3D printing doesn’t need to be wasteful – the plastic you throw away is no different than the plastic you use to feed the printer. But desktop 3D printers almost exclusively need their plastic to be in expensive filament form (think weed-whacker line, or very thick fishing line), not in affordable pellet form or free garbage form. Which raises the question: what if there were a way to convert any form of plastic — pellets, rafting, support, failed prints, etc. — into filament?
The following fall, a lot more people started asking that same question when an award of $40,000 and a complete fabrication shop was offered to the first person to turn raw pellets into filament. An inventor named Hugh Lyman ended up winning the contest, but did not plan on commercializing his invention.
We decided to give it a shot ourselves, and embarked on the long journey of trying to create a filament recycling system. We ended up getting a pretty awesome proof of concept ready, but it was far closer to a cobbled-together creation than a shelf-ready finished product. We needed help to make our idea a reality, and a beautiful one at that.
Finding the Right Tools to Make Better Products
Enter Autodesk. Thanks to a partnership with our local startup accelerator, we were able to get started with a suite of Autodesk software: Inventor, A360, PLM360, and perhaps most importantly Fusion 360. As an Autodesk Cleantech partner, all of a sudden we were armed with the proper tools to transform our proof of concept into a consumer-ready prototype.
We used Inventor for the more serious mechanical design work and Fusion 360 to plan the layout and integrate each part of the unit into one beautiful, functional package. PLM360 and A360 allowed us to collaborate on all of this in real time so we could all contribute and give feedback on each area of the project. The results sort of speak for themselves in terms of how useful this was: it took only six months to take our product from being a barely-working proof of concept to a beautifully-enclosed final prototype. Without Autodesk, I’m not sure we would have been able to do it at all!
We’re now crowdfunding ProtoCycler on Indiegogo, and the campaign is already successful! (Shameless sales pitch: Go check it out.) None of this would have been possible without Inventor, PLM 360, A360, and Fusion 360. Together, they allowed us to accelerate our development at a rate we didn’t think possible, collaborate in a way that actually made sense, and track all of our developments in a central, accessible manner. It was almost as if we hired a full design team, but without having to move to a bigger office.
We’re excited that the first fully integrated, fully automated recycling system for 3D printers will now become a reality — saving plastic from the landfill and money from being needlessly spent — and we can’t to see what people will do with it!