For the last seven years, re:3D, Inc. has been developing a large format, industrial 3D printer that can print directly from plastic waste. Gigabot X is a fused filament fabrication 3D printer which can print with pellets, granules or flakes of waste plastic. We propose placing Gigabot X in the public eye in retail spaces and using it to fabricate reusable, collapsible plastic crates for customer use. We call this solution Earth Crates. Customers will be able to provide the waste plastic used to make the crates, see the crates being fabricated in real time, and take the crates with them to use for shopping, enabling active, transformative participation in the circular economy. Few people get to see direct benefits of recycling, and because of that may have less buy-in for these efforts. re:3D believes it should be brought into the mainstream, and our solution provides an accessible, compact system of manufacturing that informs and educates while encouraging active participation and providing direct benefits to consumers.
Plastic waste pollution is an increasingly prevalent environmental issue, with a recycle rate of only 9% for all the worldwide plastic ever produced. In 2017 the US alone generated over 35 million tons of post-consumer plastic waste, with 77% going to landfills. China used to import plastic waste for recycling from 43 countries, including America, but starting in 2018 China banned the import of non-industrial plastic waste. Due to the new policy, an estimated 109 million tons of plastic worldwide will be displaced by 2030, driving the need to rapidly develop domestic recycling solutions3. One novel solution is to use additive manufacturing (AM) to mechanically upcycle waste plastic.
Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has certain key benefits over traditional manufacturing methods. AM enables on-demand, onsite, customized manufacturing without the extensive equipment and up-front costs required by traditional manufacturing. This makes AM solutions quickly deployable and especially suited for lower production runs. Furthermore, the distributed nature of consumer plastic waste creates logistical collection challenges, making 3D printing a promising solution for upcycling plastic waste closer to the location where it is produced, reducing transportation and storage costs.
To adapt additive manufacturing to take recycled plastic feedstock, re:3D developed Gigabot X, a 3D printer that prints directly from recycled polymer pellets, flakes, and regrind, thereby mechanically upcycling plastic waste for a wide variety of applications. Gigabot X is a large-format Cartesian printer with a build volume starting at 5.8 cubic feet, and the modularity of the pellet extruder allows for installation on even larger printer frames. With a price point of $17k, Gigabot X is an affordable option for large-scale industrial 3D printing. The pellet extruder on Gigabot X comprises an extrusion barrel with three heating zones, a compression screw, and interchangeable nozzles to print at different resolutions. With its high heat input and nozzle sizes up to 5mm, Gigabot X can extrude up to 0.8kg/hour of material, or 20 times faster than a traditional filament printer.
Currently the most common AM solution is fused filament fabrication (FFF), which typically uses filament manufactured from virgin plastic. The benefit of pellet 3D printing over FFF 3D printers is its capacity to recycle at scale. There are a limited number of companies producing 3D printer filament from recycled plastics,, and filament is on average 10x more expensive than pellets due to the energy and monetary cost incurred by the filament manufacturing process. By contrast, using a pellet extruder to 3D print directly from plastic regrind skips that manufacturing process entirely and upcycles plastic regrind directly into an end product. Cost and energy savings multiply with the amount of material printed, making it economically viable to print objects on the scale of boats, automotives, and construction parts. Due to its large build volume, a single Gigabot X pellet printer has the potential to repurpose 30k water bottles per month into functional products, such as reusable, collapsible crates.
To inform our pellet printing technology, re:3D has conducted material testing on a variety of recycled plastics. We developed a material testing procedure that includes optimizing print settings, producing test prints like the NIST Test Artifact, and collecting mechanical strength data with tensile testing. Tested recycled pellets include PET made from water bottles (Ultrafuse, Keene Village Plastics), toner and HIPS from used paper printer cartridges (Canon Inc), and HDPE made from decking (Fiberon). We also test raw plastic waste by granulating at re:3D’s Houston office and printing with it. Tested plastic regrind includes cleaning product bottles (PET, HDPE, and PP) from Nature Clean, polypropylene test tube holders from Roche, and polycarbonate (PC) ID badge trimmings from HID Global. As a full-service 3D printing company that manufactures contract prints and production parts, re:3D also collects in-house failed prints, rafts, and supports for granulation and printing with Gigabot X. These materials include PC, PET, PLA, and PETG.
Within the $11B/year additive manufacturing market, pellet printing is extremely new technology, with only a handful of commercially available solutions. At re:3D, we believe that pellet printing’s ability to break the cost, accessibility, and sustainability barriers of AM will result in a quick adoption of pellet printing. We have already sold beta units and garnered interest for a wide range of applications, including recycling, polymer manufacturing, boat building, and vehicle prototyping. This shows promise that with Gigabot X, supply chains can be re-imagined into circular economies, revolutionizing industries with sustainable manufacturing.
Below is a list of groups that previously collaborated or communicated with re:3D, and demonstrate future opportunities to expand Gigabot X’s ability to recycle plastic at scale:
Canon Inc - Canon has provided re:3D with test samples of toner and HIPS pellets made from used paper printer cartridges. Through material testing, we successfully used the recycled toner as a black colorant for rPET and established initial print settings for the rHIPS pellets.
City of Austin - In 2019, re:3D won a ReVerse Pitch competition to upcycle 2000 lbs of polycarbonate waste from HID Global, a company based in Austin. This collaboration with the City of Austin serves as a pilot for using Gigabot X for the city’s waste management.
Dow - Dow has graciously provided material for validation in re:3D’s FFF 3D printers and has offered both additives to support upcycling of waste in re:3D’s pellet printer as well as additional materials for testing.
Fluor - Fluor is a leading engineering construction company that is currently pitching re:3D’s capability to produce functional objects from waste from their construction portfolio.
Furukawa Electric - Furukawa Electric makes electric wire housing up to a meter wide. They’re interested in printing with plastic pellets made from Japanese consumer plastic waste.
GraftPolymers - GraftPolymers recently approached re:3D with their GraftBond polymer additives, which chemically alter various polyolefins to make them miscible with each other, opening the potential to 3D print with mixed plastic streams like consumer waste.
Habitat for Humanity - re:3D has collaborated with the Austin Habitat for Humanity ReStore to develop furniture made of reclaimed wood and recycled plastic. We designed and printed chairs from Ultrafuse rPET pellets, which are made of recycled water bottles. We seek to expand to other furniture items like tables and benches.
Waste Management Houston - WM Houston has offered introductions to local players in their ecosystem that pelletize Houston waste as well as non candidate waste for pelletizing that could be utilized in Gigabot X to create increased local value.
Equipment and Facilities
re:3D hosts a 10,000 square foot fabrication facility fully capable of in-house manufacturing of Gigabot X printers and any supplemental hardware needed for this project. re:3D has an established material testing procedure and associated test files from previous material testing on Gigabot X, as well as an Admet machine capable of tensile and 3-point bending testing to collect material property data on 3D printed recycled plastics.
 Geyer, Roland, et al. “Production, Use, and Fate of All Plastics Ever Made.” Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 7, 29 July 2017, doi:10.1126/sciadv.1700782.
 “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 19 Nov. 2019, www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/national-overview-facts-and-figures-materials#NationalPicture.
 Brooks, Amy L., et al. “The Chinese Import Ban and Its Impact on Global Plastic Waste Trade.” Science Advances, vol. 4, no. 6, 20 June 2018, doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat0131.
 Cotteleer, Mark, and Jim Joyce. “3D Opportunity: Additive Manufacturing Paths to Performance, Innovation, and Growth.” Deloitte Insights, Deloitte, 18 Jan. 2014, www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/deloitte-review/issue-14/dr14-3d-opportunity.html.
 Hopewell, Jefferson, et al. “Plastics Recycling: Challenges and Opportunities.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 364, no. 1526, 27 July 2009, pp. 2115–2126., doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0311.