3D printers have the potential to create a sustainable future. Printing objects on-demand eliminates packaging waste, reduces emissions from transportation, brings broken things back to life, and recycles materials destined for the landfill.
That’s why a few months ago I decided to join the community of hobbyists, enthusiasts and entrepreneurs exploring the boundaries of 3D printing and build my own printer.
Being a huge fan of open source projects I was thrilled to come across the RepRap community. The RepRap Prusa Mendel i2 offered everything I needed from my first machine – well documented build instructions, a large print area, good print resolution, and an easily upgradable design.
After some late nights and dedicated weekends I rejoiced to see the Arduino Mega 2560 blink to life as I sent the first commands to the RepRap. The printer itself was an absolute eye-sore; a birds nest of wires, makeshift supports, and dangling sensors.
I spent time getting familiar with Repetier Host and configuring the Slic3r software before visiting Thingiverse and downloading a shark comb. The print came out surprisingly well for a machine lacking calibration and sensors held in place with Kapton tape.
It didn’t take very long to realize that properly mounted hardware was essential. After only a few hours of printing the Kapton tape securing the thermistor to the hot-end came loose and disaster ensued.
With the thermistor detached from the hot-end, the computer couldn’t get accurate temperature readings. With a significantly cooler ambient temperature the computer kept sending commands to the Arduino to raise the temperature of the extruder. The J-Head began to melt and the nozzle and PEEK sleeve failed.
After assessing the damage and repairing the extruder I decided to learn more about the properties of the ABS filament I had vaporized. A recent study from U.S. and French researchers measured the amount of particles emitted during printing. The study revealed that ABS filament emits elevated levels of styrene, a possible carcinogen. As a result, ABS printers should only be operated in a well-ventilated room or within an enclosure with a vent.
I decided to build a dedicated enclosure with extraction hood to minimize exposure to fumes released during printing. Using some sheets of Plexiglas, aluminum angle brackets, door hinges, an exhaust fan, an IKEA table, and some duct tape I constructed an enclosure.
The top of the enclosure mates with a corrugated duct pipe attached to a fan to function as the extraction hood. A layer of tape at the seams of the Plexiglas and angle brackets seals the enclosure.
Mounting the RepRap to the table using small angle brackets reduced vibrations and improved print resolution, while suspending the power supplies on angle brackets organized the wiring.
My initial intention with the RepRap was to print a variety of interlocking and pin connected components. ABS was the material of choice given its relative flexibility, strength, and higher temperature resistance. However ABS is petroleum based, doesn’t biodegrade, requires a heated print bed, and emits styrene during printing.
Having completed a number of successful ABS prints using the enclosed RepRap I’ve decided to try experimenting with different filaments. PLA filament is manufactured from a variety of plant products including corn, potatoes, and sugar-beets. It will biodegrade at commercial compost facilities and doesn’t emit styrene during printing. There are also filaments available that contain recycled bamboo fibers, coffee grinds, beer, hemp, and algae.
Given that more and more 3D printers are finding their way into homes, schools, libraries, and makerspaces it is great to see that alternatives to styrene emitting ABS are available. Dedicated vented enclosures for 3D printers are not always practical or available.
Todays PLA and other biodegradable filaments may not have the same mechanical properties as ABS, but a more sustainable and safe 3D printing future is just around the corner. With a community of dedicated hobbyists, makers, and entrepreneurs it won’t be long before biodegradable, reusable, and safe filaments outperform todays ABS plastics.