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3D Printing Crates from Plastic Waste for Retail Applications

An on site recycling system which can take waste plastic from customers and convert it into 3D printed, reusable, collapsible crates.

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Solution Title

Earth Crates: from Trash to Treasure

Solution Summary

re:3D, Inc. has developed a 3D printer that can print directly from plastic waste. We propose placing Gigabot X in retail spaces and using it to fabricate reusable, collapsible plastic crates.

Terms and Conditions

  • Yes

Company / Organization Name (if applicable)

re:3D, Inc.

Website (if applicable)

www.re3d.org

What is the current stage of development of your solution?

  • Operating Concept / Startup: You have fulfilled the stages of testing, undertaken a full scale roll-out, and are currently operating this solution as a business.

Please include a visual (can be either 2D or 3D) representation/prototype of your concept. The first image you provide will be the image used to promote your idea as a Winner.

Gigabot X large format industrial 3D printers

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[1]. In 2017 the US alone generated over 35 million tons of post-consumer plastic waste, with 77% going to landfills[2]. 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[3]. 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[4]. 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[5], 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[6]. 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[7],[8], 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.

Past Collaborations

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.


-------------------

[1] 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.

[2] “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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] http://re3d.org/gigabot

[7] https://greengate3d.com/

[8] https://www.ultrafusefff.com/product-category/sustainable/innocircle/



This solution addresses which of the following:

  • Reusable models
  • On-site Recycling

How does this solution integrate into retail environments or delivery systems?

Reusable crates made from waste plastic made in real-time and customized per retailer or consumer need or used as delivery mechanisms for local delivery from retailers or 3rd party services. Place the Gigabot X printers at a focal point in the retail environment and then produce crates that can either be purchased or given out on a promotional basis in exchange for consumers providing the plastic waste feedstock for the machines. No costly tooling needed to alter the design of the objects.

Describe your target market. Who will benefit from your product?

Our target market is large retailers and retail spaces, such as malls or shopping districts. Earth Crates is an engaging interactive system that has both an educational and functional use. While observing the crates being fabricated, consumers can also gain further knowledge of how investing in a circular economy is beneficial to them and the environment. Following the initial equipment purchase, retailers and shopping districts provide a waste free system for conveying goods to homes from their spaces for the cost of the electricity for the 3D printers and granulators and the labor to run the machines. The feedstock is provided by plastic waste from consumer donation or retail operations.

How does or might your solution meet or exceed the performance of the single-use plastic bag?

re:3D has used the Gigabot X 3D printers to produce chairs with a weight capacity of 300 lbs. These chairs have been sold in the Austin, TX Habitat for Humanity ReStore. We have also 3D printed a model of a paper bag out of rPET on Gigabot X which we have used for years to transport items to and from tradeshows. We are confident in the weight capacity of the crates produced with this method.

How does this solution impact / improve workflows for stakeholders (e.g. cashiers, stocking staff)?

Earth Crates requires staff for preparing the plastic waste feedstock and operating and maintaining the 3D printer. An operator can granulate approximately 20lbs of waste/hour. It takes about ½ hour to load the 3D printer and prepare it for printing. Thereafter it can print continuously for 24 hours. The number of crates it can produce at a time varies by design. The crates are functionally similar to rigid bags or cardboard boxes, and the workflow involved would mirror those objects.

What additional benefits might the solution provide to stakeholders (retailers and customers alike)?

Embracing this solution has multiple value adds. Customers will provide the waste plastic used to make the crates, see them 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 impact, and because of that may have less buy-in. Our solution provides an accessible, compact system of manufacturing that informs and educates while providing direct benefits to consumers.

How is your solution scalable across retail environments?

The Gigabot X 3D printer(s) at the heart of the Earth Crates solution are fully encapsulated 3D printers with space for branding on the enclosure. They roll on casters and need only 110v power to operate. Retail spaces may place one or two of the 3D printers in public view, and keep the granulators and dryers for processing feedstock in stock rooms. Racks to store the earth crates themselves can be custom printed on the 3d printers to fit the space limitations and aesthetic needs of the public display.

What regions will your solution be applicable in?

re:3D has customers in over 50 different countries, utilizing our 3D printers in industries as disparate as manufacturing, art and education for rural to industrial locals. The inclusion of a backup power supply in areas with electricity instability is a recommendation we always make and source. The benefit of the feedstock being plastic waste provided from local consumers or from retail operations ensures that once in place, the system can operate with locally sourced waste.

How is your solution recoverable? What is the expected end of life for this solution's materials once it is no longer usable? Please upload any documentation or evidence of material recoverability.

re:3D has a commitment to owners that all improvements & re-designs will be offered as retrofit kits to reduce waste and “bricking” of our products. Similarly, any custom branding placed on the 3D printers, as long as such branding are made of a thermoplastic, can be granulated and used to create Earth Crates in the machines themselves, reducing the waste from marketing and branding evolutions. The earth crates created on Gigabot X, should they be no longer desired or break, can be returned to the retailer to be redistributed, or if defective, granulated and reprinted. Research shows that you can put plastics through approximately five heat/cool cycles, as is needed for 3D printing, before new materials or chemicals need to be introduced to the feedstock to ensure continued strong molecular bonding and prevent breakage or delamination. Recycling an object five times vs only single use is a vast improvement.

How have you incorporated additional sustainability attributes (beyond recoverability) into your solution?

Beyond what has been articulated above, locally manufactured Earth Crates reduce transportation cost and environmental impact by combining the consumer’s own transportation needs for frequenting the retail space with the transportation of both the feedstock for crate production and moving the crate from home to store. On the retailer end, utilizing plastic waste from other operations reduces the overhead and impact on waste disposal as well as cost and impact for procuring traditional bags.

In what ways does or might your solution prompt behavior change amongst stakeholders, including retail staff and customers? How will your solution successfully design for this change?

By bringing the mechanisms for recycling plastic waste out in the open, users can engage in conversations surrounding circular economies, recycling pitfalls, recycled manufacturing and future solutions. Our goal is to enable problem solvers in their communities. By interacting with this solution in real time, stakeholders spur ideas for further refinement. What else can be created? Perhaps a bike rack or furniture for your store? The possibilities are limited only by your imagination.

What unintended consequences can you foresee unfolding from your solution, and how might you mitigate them?

The added complexity of 3D printing from pellets and flake requires specialized training, and we can provide such training. We anticipate more iteration beyond launch, but are confident upgrades will have minimal waste. Crate models need a designer skilled in 3D printing. re:3D has such designers on staff, and can provide designs in consultation with retailers or provide training to the retailers’ own employees for how to successfully design for 3D printing.

What health and safety concerns might your solution raise, and how are you considering addressing them?

The 3D printer comes with a full enclosure to prevent injury from heat. Only trained operators will perform maintenance. Some plastics off gas in the printing process. Options to mitigate are: 1) limit materials used to those with minimal and human-safe offgassing. Or 2) Install a vent hood or air scrubber on the printer. This does require a greater infrastructure investment, yet it expands the recyclability options. Retailers should make this choice based on budget and space considerations.

Please upload a business model canvas or plan.

Please see attached canvas.

What are the biggest challenges you're facing today? What are existing gaps in your solution?

Currently our solution uses a 3rd party granulator and feedstock drying in addition to our Gigabot X 3D printer. We are currently funded to research and further commercialize the system to be all in one, yet to date have not completed that work. It is a functioning system, but not as streamlined as we intend it to eventually be. Nevertheless we have sold and delivered units to various businesses and universities both in the US and abroad. Designing the collapsible crates to be printed on the system has not yet begun because we hope to create custom solutions for each retailer implementing the system with their input. The crates will probably take 4 to 8 design hours to create depending on complexity. Print times for the crates will vary from 1 hour to 10 hours depending upon size and geometry.

Mentorship needs (please select up to 3)

  • Sustainability and Recoverability
  • Retail Operations/Flow
  • Growth and Scaling

Tell us about yourself and your team. What is your background and experience?

A spinoff of NASA-JSC, re:3D is skilled in quality management, engineering, materials testing, R&D, production and manufacturing. We have been building and pushing the bounds of 3D printing since 2013.

In what city are you located?

Austin & Houston TX & San Juan, Puerto Rico

In what country are you located?

USA

What is your legal / organizational structure? (if applicable)

C-Corp

Please describe how becoming a Winner will support the growth of your concept.

re:3D is actively seeking partners for implementing strategic use cases for this technology and this opportunity directly applies to our current goals of moving our solution to a broader market. The connection to the consortium partners is an exciting opportunity to make concrete steps towards a true circular economy. Funding will be used for a pilot project with one of the consortium partners, putting an Earth Crates system in a forward-thinking partner’s space and gathering data and metrics.

How did you hear about the Challenge?

  • Someone in my network (word of mouth)

Is your company a diverse supplier, MBE, WBE, VBE?

  • We are a woman-owned business, but have not filed any official paperwork for that designation

Do you feel like your organization or team is actively equitable or anti racist? What are some examples of this?

Our engagement efforts target expanded access to 3D printing for diverse groups. We make space for and share anti-racism resources. As COVID-19 hit minorites hard, we created PPE for the People which donates PPE to essential workers in minority and underserved communities. https://re3d.org/diversity

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