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3D printer that uses scrap plastic wins design contest

25 Apr 2014  | Stephen Padilla

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A group of fresh graduates from the University of the Philippines (UP) has designed an earth-friendly 3D printer that uses scrap plastic as printing material in place of the conventional filament, paving way for a more affordable 3D printing technology while reducing plastic waste generation in the process.

Dubbed as the 3D PrintEarth, the prototype 3D printer came into existence through the collaboration of UP students Juan Paolo Espiritu, Martin Jude Borja, Carissa Norielle Cruz, Emilio Vicente Gomez and Kevin Matthew Yatco. Engineering professor Manuel Ramos mentored the team.

3D PrintEarth Block Diagram

Figure 1: Block diagram of 3D PrintEarth.

The novel device makes use of a delta robot, which is a three-armed parallel robot, as its manipulator. Its linear topology is considered as the fastest robotic manipulator structure today as seen in its many applications, such as factory assembly and robotic surgery. The delta robot triggers the extruding element that ejects the printing material—in this case, the hot plastic produced through smelting.

Plastic smelting is the process of heating up plastic into pseudo-liquid form, which makes it a good replacement to the conventional filament in achieving any desired shape. The melting temperature varies on the kind of plastic used, so heat regulation is crucial. In addition, plastic should not be exposed to direct fire to avoid releasing chemical gases and fumes.

Plastic Smelting

Figure 2: Scrap plastic as printing material in place of conventional filament.

Operating at 16MHz, an ATMega328P microcontroller with 20 general-purpose input/output (GPIO) pins runs the 3D PrintEarth, taking full charge of other components such as motor drivers, LCD display, sensors, switches, and the computer.

An L298N dual H-bridge drives the stepper motors and connects to a 74LS194 bi-directional shift register in order to allow smooth motor rotation in both directions. A pulse-width modulation (PWM) signal controls the duty cycle of operation, resulting in a regulated torque output and heat generation of the driver.

While the stepper motor is responsible for driving the filament, turning the heating element on and off is the job of the UA-SH-105d 5V relay. Doing this allows the regulation of the extruding temperature to the desired level, which is around 200°C for PLA plastic. The team utilised a hacked 220V 40W glue gun as the heating element used in melting the plastic. As a consequence, the filament diameter depends on the glue gun's feed diameter.

3D PrintEarth prototype

Figure 3: Prototype of 3D PrintEarth.

The printer's body is made from locally available parts, resulting in cheaper cost of around $330 as compared to 3D printers in the market, which stand at more than $2,200.

"I wanted to raise the awareness of 3D printing by overcoming one of the major reasons why it isn't a mainstream technology yet—the high cost of the printer and the printing filament," Espiritu told EDN Asia.

In addition, the 3D PrintEarth has the ability to take in scrap plastic as its printing material. "By using used water bottles, grocery bags, etc., not only does the printer material practically cost nothing, it also provides a great opportunity to minimise our country's plastic waste generation, which can reach a disturbingly high rate of 5,600tons of waste per day," Espiritu said.

UP Team

Figure 4: The UP team that developed the low-cost and earth-friendly 3D printer: Dr. Ramos, Yatco, Cruz, Espiritu, Gomez, and Borja.

Designing the low-cost printer involved more than just electronics. Espiritu explained that the team's greatest challenge was achieving the working setup with all the variables and settings selected accordingly. "In the design process, we had to make everything work together; that means we had to do the electronic, mechanical, software, and chemical designing simultaneously," he said.

The team's 3D PrintEarth won the top prize at a local electronics design competition sponsored by the Philippines' Department of Science and Technology, besting 17 other designs from 13 schools and universities. They received a cash prize of $4,500, which they plan to use to further develop their printer and fund new projects that are still in the design phase.

One of the team's plans is to have the 3D PrintEarth patented and ready for commercial use, but they have to finalise the design first in order to do so.

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