3D printing company re:3D had been ideating on a portable shipping container that could turn recyclable material into useful goods - aligned to their pursuit of sustainability and circular solutions when the pandemic struck.
At the time, they were 3D printing PPE kits to help mitigate supply chain disruptions. When the company zoomed out at the whole picture, they realized the potential of an off-grid mobile factory stocked with all the paraphernalia needed for PPE production.
It could be located outside of hospitals or community centers, and relocate itself as needs and resources shifted.
Thus, Gigalab was born.
"It quickly became apparent that with a customizable footprint, a Gigalab could be used for PPE production, as a space for teaching manufacturing skills, or as a factory which recycles waste plastic into 3D printed objects," Charlotte Craff, re:3D ambassador, tells IE.
The Gigalab, true to its makers' vision, dons multiple hats.
It comprises the tools and the workspace to process particle waste, a granulator to grind up the plastic waste, a dryer to remove water particles from the plastic granules, and finally, Gigabot X 3D printers to print new and useful objects directly from those granules.
To be precise, the portable facility could turn your trash into treasure.
Why the Gigabot X 3D printer stands out
While most plastic-based 3D printers print with filament - a long, continuous strand of plastic - which is stored on a spool before being fed into the printer, an FGF (Fused granulate fabrication) printer like Gigabot X uses plastic pellets, granules, or reground plastic as the "feedstock," according to Craff.
"This saves costs for raw materials, increases the variety of plastics you can use, and decreases the heat cycles needed to recycle the plastic, making it more likely it can be recycled again," she says.
Craff is right about the diversity of plastics that can be recycled by the Gigabot X. It processes thermoplastics and composites with thermoplastic bases. They can be either virgin materials or recycled, Craff tells us. "Gigalab can grind them down to between 1-5 mm diameter pieces, the size that fits in the Gigabot X 3D printers."
However, the materials have to be devoid of contaminants and sorted by type, to reduce failures during 3D printing.
"We have tested over 40 different types of these thermoplastics on our Gigabot X 3D printer and are testing more. The initial form factor could be anything from unneeded 3D prints and support material, to plastic bottles and food containers, to manufacturing waste like plastic caps or test tubes," she says.
Truly a circular solution
Currently, the company is working on automating a manual process - "making Gigabot X 3D Printers an integrated system that can granulate plastic, dry it, and automatically feed it into the 3D printer," says Craff.
"We're also working on solutions to improve the flow of irregular plastic granules as well as being able to granulate water bottles that still have liquid in them."
The Gigalab is currently being developed as a community-based plastic waste recycling option. Could it eliminate offsite processing?
"3D printers are relatively slower compared to injection molding, and if you're looking to recycle and reuse tons and tons of plastic waste on-site, you would need many Gigalabs to accomplish that, so it might not be the right solution for that," answers Craff.
"But, for a rural or isolated area, or for a manufacturer looking to reuse the plastic waste they're producing instead of paying to have it hauled away, a Gigalab can be a circular solution that transforms that plastic from single-use trash into an item of value," she says.
All in one place
The company has had several inquiries from rural communities that want to use a Gigalab to make furniture from trash and island nations who want to process waste and create income for their communities.
Meanwhile, Gigabot X is currently being used by schools, research labs, industrial design shops, and manufacturers.
"We'd love to partner with more communities who want to teach advanced manufacturing skills while reusing their waste like we're going to do in Puerto Rico and at the US Air Force Academy," says Craff.
"We're currently building the first Gigalab which will be installed at Engine-4 in Puerto Rico. Another four Gigalabs are being made for the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and will be installed within the next year," states Craff.
The promise is big, and re:3D hopes to associate with more manufacturers who want to find circular plastic solutions for their operations. Communities could be empowered to design the products they require - printing them from their own trash, co-creating a circular economy.