In a world awash with waste plastic, William Hoyle may feel a little like he is trying to plug a dam with a crumpled plastic bottle, but as good fights go, it’s hard to find fault with his charity’s Digital Blacksmiths initiative – which recycles plastic waste for use in 3D printers.
Tech for Trade, the UK-based charity that he founded in 2011, works at the interface of technology, trade and entrepreneurship. They recently developed the world’s first open source system for recycling plastic bottles into the filament used in 3D printing.
For the modest sum of £9,452, they plan – from headquarters in the University of Nairobi’s Makerspace/Fablab – to trial this technology by producing 100 scientific microscopes, designed by Cambridge University, for Kenyan schools.
There is no shortage of plastic supplies. According to a peer-reviewed global analysis (published last year), all plastic manufactured – 8.3 billion metric tonnes at the time of publication – becomes rubbish in less than 12 months.
The rest may take longer, but ultimately 79 percent sloughs off in the natural environment to strangle sea creatures, or to rot in landfill for centuries. Getting the right waste plastic to convert into filament for use in the 3D printers is less straightforward, however.
As William Hoyle, told Computer Business Review: “ABS plastic is often treated with things like flame retardants. That means toxic fumes. PLA is good, but there’s not much around in Kenya. PET is the polymer we’ve identified that produces the best quality prints – we now have agreements in place with restaurants around Nairobi to use their PET bottles.”
Even the 3D printers are recycled: the “Retr3D” printer is the first – and thus far only – fully open source 3D printer built in Africa. (The printer is constructed from e-waste, 3D printed components and parts easily available in developing countries.)
From Bottles to Biology Classes
Tools such as microscopes are vital teaching aids and are taken for granted in developed countries. In most Kenyan schools they are an unaffordable luxury. Tech for Trade thinks 3D printing may prove the most cost-efficient way to bring them into hundreds more schools, while also helping to combat the growing tidal wave of plastic waste.
The first batch printed by Nairobi’s Digital Blacksmiths are now being tested in Kenya by Farm Africa’s SIDAI group of veterinary technicians, whilst partners at the University of Nairobi support the development of curriculum-relevant content for microscopes in education.
As William Hoyle puts it: “The challenge is not just the manufacturing, but bringing the product to market in the most effective way. Many teachers haven’t taught with a microscope and need to learn how to teach interactive classes; something that the university is supporting. We’ve also had to get the microscope accredited as a scientific instrument. All these are really useful capacity building tools in a country that has not really had a manufacturing industry in the past.”
He added: “In areas where recycling facilities are unavailable, our filament production system not only begins to address the local waste processing issue, it also delivers an improved financial return for local waste pickers. Many of the items we’re hoping to print put both production and repair into the hands of local manufacturers.”
Dr Richard Ayah, Director of the Science and Technology Park at the University of Nairobi said: “This project seems to inspire everyone who comes across it, so we’re excited to see how we can get more support to push things further and faster. The potential impact of being able to print really useful items at a fraction of the OTC cost is massive.”
Printing the Future
As 3D printing projects go, Digital Blacksmiths is a humble trailblazer.
But Dutch bank ING believes the writing is on the wall. Recent analysis by the bank suggested that if current growth of investment in 3D printers continues, half of all manufactured goods will be printed by 2060 (under an alternative scenario they modelled, as early as 2040).
ING estimate this to wipe out a quarter of world trade. If this means affordable science and medical instruments, few in Kenya will be complaining.
For the Digital Blacksmith team meanwhile, exciting times lie ahead as they seek to build a network of digital smithies. (As Matt Rogge, Technical Director at Tech for Trade puts it: “It’s taken us nearly four years to get to the stage where we can go all the way from bottle to printed product, so we’ve finally hit the most exciting time for Digital Blacksmiths).
As William Hoyle puts it: “I believe that 3D printing has the potential to do for development what the mobile phone did for communications in emerging markets like Kenya; essentially leapfrogging a stage of development.
“We’re also working with a small NGO in a refugee camp in North Kenya to assess what products would most benefit residents in the camp, and Penn State University on 3D printing of medical technology devices. When you see a surgeon being able to print a 3D model of a conjoined pelvis from an MRI scam ahead of a complex operation to separate conjoined twins, you realise the power of this technology.”