Plastic extrusion printing, or squeezing hot plastic out of a toothpaste tube until you’ve drawn a 3D object is one of the oldest and most disseminated technologies in the diverse field of additive manufacturing. Because the thermoplastic filament can be melted down many times over, it is one of the printing processes in which materials are recyclable. This type of new technology should excite both the environmentalist and actuary inside all of us. Recycling plastic makes one feel good about his or her environmental impact, but also a pound of waste plastic costs less than the price for which many companies sell even a cubic inch of filament. Can the newly announced Filabot change the current dynamic for filament supply to extrusion printing?
I would love to see widespread on-site filament production, and encourage all who would further the cause, but there are currently some very serious hurdles for the plastic extrusion technology to overcome before this becomes mainstream.
1. With the old 2D paper printing business model of low margin hardware and high margin “ink” as the standard for many 3D printing technologies, most plastic extrusion manufacturers make it near impossible for the end user to add his or her own filament to a machine. People have always found ways around the barriers the OEMs put in place, but then are almost immediately countered with new fail-safes on the filament cartridge.
2. The range of available materials for extrusion printers is still too narrow. Although manufacturers are making huge strides in this area, most recycled plastics are not yet compatible with extrusion printers. Granted, turning old ABS cell phone housings into filament is pretty revolutionary, there is not a printer on the market that could use the PET filament made from most water bottles or other common materials used in packaging. If my next cell phone upgrade comes in two years, I could use up to 700 water bottles in that time.
3. Quality control always adds a harsh dose of reality which all the warts on any new, unproven idea. If my print fails currently, I can either blame the “ink” or the printer, but in either case the same company supports my issue (if I use a manufacturer that offers support at all.) With that responsibility, manufacturers put thousands of hours making sure their filament works in their machines. When we look to mix and match with homemade material, these issues compound while the responsibility for error disappears, not to mention the voided warranties. Most computer users understand the frustration when their software company technical support blames the hardware for an issue and calling the hardware vendor only leads to shifting the blame back to the original party. Separating printer and filament vendors creates the exact same circumstance as software hardware compatibilty. Until filament production can be proven consistent from machine to machine, user to user, waste material to waste material, and even batch to batch, then that standardized filament can be used interchangeably in the same model of printer, then those final parts can be subject to tests and proven to have similar properties and failure points, this technology will still be unreliable.
With all that accounted for, the prognosis looks pretty grim for widespread use of low-cost recycled material changing the landscape of filament printing any time soon. The most likely scenarios where green printing comes into effect in the near future would be either a new brand of extrusion machines released which couples recycled filament creation with the printer as a single, tested product or centralized recycled filament manufacturers working with printers to offer new cartridges of proven material. In the latter case, the environmental benefits are clear, but the cost savings are not likely to be passed on to the consumer given the very lucrative current market rate of between $1 – $5 per cubic inch for plastic filament.