Three-dimensional printing is rapidly becoming the rage among techies.
Inexpensive 3D printers use plastic filaments as thick as spaghetti to create multi-dimensional objects for consumers, designers and industry.
It costs as much as $20 dollars a pound for the coils of plastic filament. But a college student in Milton says there’s a cheaper, more environmentally friendly way to produce the plastic.
Last year Vermont Technical College student Tyler McNaney learned about 3D printing and got very excited about the technology. He decided he wanted to get involved in the budding technology. A whole slew of people have used the crowd-funding site Kickstarter to build low-cost printers. But McNaney decided he wanted to build a machine that makes the plastic filament they need. He didn’t even have to build a prototype to attract 32-thousand dollars and 67 orders for a machine he calls the filabot.
Said McNaney, "After I raised the money I was like, 'Oh, boy. I guess I should build one.' So, I built one. This is the first one. It was hand-cranked and I got it working at, like, 11 o’clock at night. So, I went in the house and woke everyone up and had them come out. They didn’t think it was that amazing."
When McNanney says everyone in the house, he’s referring to his parents and two brother in the family home in Milton.
During his freshman year at Vermont Tech, McNaney worked on his project in a two-story workshop in the backyard that his dad, Jeff, built primarily from recycled materials. His Filabot machine grinds a plastic milk jug and then melts the shards of plastic into a coil of filament that can then be fed into a 3D printer to make plastic objects. Tyler McNaney has been making bottle openers with his filament on a 3D printer he bought on Kickstarter and assembled himself.
"It’s the true recycling," McNaney notes. "It’s happening right in front of you. Instead of you throwing your bottle or your recyclables into a blue bin and it goes away, it happens right in front of you. I just find it so awesome I can take a bottle and turn it into something else. It’s like the Star Trek replicator."
McNaney is making something happen that Bre Pettis, the founder of the consumer grade 3D printer Makerbot, predicted back in 2009. "It’s actually one of our goals to take a milk jug, put it in the top of the machine, and have objects come out the bottom. We’re working to make recycling a reality in your kitchen, said Pettis. "We’ll probably use pipes in the process but it’s not a dream. The idea will be to slice it up and feed it in and make objects. It’s gonna be great."
The Filabot is made of sheet metal and looks like a sled. It’s about 2 feet long and a little over a foot high, so it can sit on a desktop. There’s several toggle switches and a small digital display on the top. Ground plastic is poured in a hopper and makes its way in to a heater that melts it and pushes the molten plastic through a nozzle. McNaney had hoped to get the first Filabots to his Kickstarter supporters last June but he’s a bit behind schedule. The machines are costing more than the $350 required as a pledge to get one but the young entrepreneur says he’ll chalk it up as a learning experience. Tyler McNaney decided not to continue studying mechanical engineering at Vermont Tech in Randolph. Instead, he’s taking business courses at the school’s Williston campus – while he pursues opportunities with his filabot machine. Professor John Kidder has mixed feelings about this. "You see someone who’s so excited about something you can really only encourage it. Even though you also need to try to encourage them to do the basic boring studying stuff you need to do. But yet, I also saw the other perspective, which was that if he doesn’t take this opportunity now and do it now that he might miss it."
It turns out that there is competition for the Filabot. The Filastruder was created by a graduate student at the University of Florida. It melts down plastic pellets to make coils of filament. A Kickstarter campaign to raise $5,000 brought in close to $200,000. The Filastruder’s Kickstarter video was much more entertaining than the Filabot’s but Tyler McNaney is quick to point out that the The Filastruder doesn’t recycle waste plastic. McNaney says he’s been enjoying his business courses at Vermont Tech but he won’t rule out going back to study mechanical engineering. But is he tempted to drop out of college and just work on his business? "That would be cool. Don’t tell my mom that. She wouldn’t like that."