Trash to Treasure: from Reverse Pitch to ReStore

The dream has been the same, since the beginning of re:3D, to create a 3D printer that could print from trash. There was a problem though, first we had to create a printer (the Gigabot), and then we had to figure out a way to print directly from plastic waste (Gigabot X).

The Gigabot filament fed 3D Printer

So the first part of the dream was to create a large-scale, industrial 3D printer that was open-source and affordable, which is just what we did. The creation and sales of Gigabot has allowed re:3D to become a viable, profitable company. However, as a boot-strapped startup, finding more money, especially for R&D hardware projects was always difficult. But we never stopped believing that we could do it.

Two years ago we had the perfect opportunity to finally fund the creation of our Gigabot X 3D printer. The first was the WeWork Creator Awards, which awarded us the ability to expand our team, our facilities, and our R&D budget. The second was a Phase I SBIR (small business innovation research) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF grant was specifically for the creation of a 3D printer that could print from plastic waste. Subsequently we have received a Phase II award for this project to continue to develop an entire ecosystem to grind, dry, and feed plastic waste into the Gigabot X (GBX) printer that was developed as part of the Phase I grant. The dream was alive! The GBX was real!

The Gigabot X, pellet printer

Reverse Pitch:

Each year, the City of Austin, and specifically the Austin Resource Recovery department hosts an event called Reverse Pitch. Reverse Pitch is unique because it looks for companies within the Austin community who are creating waste that could be put to use in other areas or other businesses. The event starts with the Reverse Pitch, where the companies who are creating waste, pitch their product (trash) to businesses, entrepreneurs, or anyone interested. They talk about the quantities, the types of waste being produced, and any other pertinent information that might be useful.

Next, those who are interested in using one or more of the pitched waste-streams, put together a presentation and create a business model/use case around either creating or augmenting their business using the waste.

This past year one of the companies, HID Global, was pitching plastic polycarbonate (PC) sheets. They were the result of creating ID cards in their factory, and they were producing it in staggering amounts. The challenge was to figure out what we could do with it. I had the opportunity to go up to North Austin and tour the HID Global facility (which is amazing!) and see the process, meet the people, and get to know the waste-stream and company a little bit better. It is really amazing that this billion dollar company would be so warm and welcoming.

PC is a very common 3D printing feedstock. Our filament printing Gigabot prints with PC on a regular basis, in fact we use PC printed parts in all of our Gigabot printers. So I knew that it would be possible to print with this waste stream. Next, the entire process for HID to create their ID cards is done in a ‘clean-room’ environment, so we knew that the waste was extremely clean – another advantage because dirt can cause clogs and other issues in the printing process.

I made the pitch for a line of furniture, home goods, and art pieces to be printed on GBX directly from the HID PC waste. It was an idea that I called, Design: by re:3D. And, we WON! It was extremely exciting to win the pitch competition, and we received $10,000 to jump-start the idea (You can see the video here).

But then the joy turned into nervousness – we needed to divert 2,000 lbs of HID PC from the landfill, and quickly! What were we going to do with all of this stuff?

Serendipitously enough, one of the judges for the Reverse Pitch just so happened to work at the Austin Habitat for Humanity ReStore. We struck up a conversation after the competition, and set up a meeting with their team to discuss the idea of turning trash into treasure, and then selling it at the ReStore.

Talk about a dream scenario!

It has been a lot of work to get to this point, almost a year later! The ReStore allowed us to install a small industrial grinder in their back room, and allowed us to send interns over to spend HOURS grinding away at the 2,000lbs of PC that we had picked-up from HID.

We are so excited to announce that the first pieces of furniture are being displayed and put up for silent auction at the ReStore today! These pieces have been printed from waste plastic, this first batch is from plastic water bottles specifically. As we progress with our technology, and hone in our printer settings we are confident that we will be able to print objects from the diverted PC. We have successfully printed small vases and other objects, and we are going to be moving up to furniture shortly.

We are really looking forward to growing our relationship with the Habitat ReStore. And we are so thankful for the continued support from the City of Austin, the Austin Technology Incubator (ATI), and all of the many many more people who have believed in our story and helped us along the way. We look forward to continuing this work, diverting more trash from the landfill, and growing our business and team here in Texas.

On designing this collection:

By Mike Battaglia

When looking around reStore, I was looking for something that would usually be in stock and was an easy shape to design around. For my first piece I settled to design around 2x2s after seeing a bench outside made entirely of them.

The first design relied on glue to keep it together and I ultimately decided that this wasn’t sustainable. To complete the loop, I wanted the chair to be able to be disassembled, ground up, and turned into new feedstock for GBX. The second design had screw holes so that the 2x2s could be fastened and removed/disassembled. I definitely prefer this design but have already moved on to other ideas that will be even easier to assemble.

Lead Designer: Mike B. Assembling Furniture

Designing for GBX requires adding a little bit more tolerance than you would for a regular print. The layers are larger and slightly less consistent. I learned the hard way when realizing that the tolerance I had designed in was not enough, and had to plane down each piece of wood to fit.

Currently I am experimenting with 3D printed molds for pouring reclaimed cement+polycarbonate scrap into to create side tables.

Check out a quick video about the furniture:

What do you think we should make next? Email: info@re3d.org and let us know!

Creating Water from Air: WATRIC Energy Resources

Karlos Miranda was in his first year at University Of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus when Hurricane Maria hit.

Bringing with it 150 mile-an-hour winds and several feet of rainfall, the storm devastated Puerto Rico, destroying homes and wiping out power across the island. But it was the destruction of the water system that made the biggest impression on Miranda, spurring him to action.

“I remember the first time I went out looking for water and saw the lines of people waiting for an oasis truck. It was a never-ending line of people desperate to fill their containers with water,” he recounts. “All these people – me included – were lucky to live in a place where water trucks were able to come, because there were others in more isolated areas or places with blocked roads who did not have access to water for a longer time.”

It jolted him that even the people who were seemingly well-equipped for such a natural disaster – homes with solar panels and backup generators – were crippled by the loss of running water. “After Maria, many Puerto Ricans started buying electric generators or moving to renewable energy to decrease the impact of a blackout, but when it comes to water there is not much to do in order to be more resilient.”

The relief effort was also woefully botched: who can forget the image of thousands of water bottle pallets left to expire on a hot runway in Ceiba?

“We saw a need after the hurricane: a need in water transportation, a need of micro-grids, and a gap in home-sustainability products,” Miranda says. “The need for an alternative water source – it was very obvious in that moment.”

 

Finding Solutions to Problems Exposed by Maria

As a student in the mechanical engineering program with a penchant for tinkering, Miranda often attended on-campus workshops for startups. One such event was put on by a local organization, Parallel18, which hosts a five-month program in San Juan that provides grants and mentorship to young companies in an accelerator-like format. Under the Parallel18 umbrella is Pre18, a program for even earlier-stage startups that may still be in the prototype phase.

Miranda pitched his idea and was accepted into Pre18’s second cohort.

That idea is now WATRIC Energy Resources, Miranda’s answer to the lack of off-the-grid systems for use in the event of a natural disaster, or simply to improve one’s carbon footprint. WATRIC’s mission is to develop home solutions, accessible to the average Puerto Rican, to extract potable water from the surroundings so that water security is never a concern.

“[Maria] has been in my mind since, and is what motivated me to start looking for future solutions in water access because…I am aware that this same situation could happen again to Puerto Rico, and any place prone to natural disasters like hurricanes.”

Miranda is working towards this solution through the creation of WALT, a wall-mounted device that condenses naturally-occurring moisture in the air, turning it into liquid water. Using the surrounding air, the technology makes use of the Peltier effect – in conjunction with software to allow the system to adapt in a wide range of environments – to generate one to two gallons of drinkable water a day.

“A technology like WALT could mean relief in a natural disaster that causes a water blackout,” Miranda explains. “We also think about WALT as part of the effort for achieving independence from the grid. We want to bring the same relief that people have when they can generate their own energy at home, but with water, and a future in which total home independence from the grid is a possibility.”

A Growing Startup Community in Puerto Rico

Over the course of about six months, Miranda was able to move rapidly from idea stage to workable prototype thanks to the help of a growing startup community in Puerto Rico, one which has blossomed from the rubble of Maria as local entrepreneurs sprang to action to create solutions to problems left exposed in the wake of the storm.

“Here in the island, this is – I would say – the first time that the startup community is really having growth,” Miranda muses. 

One such entrepreneurial hub fueling this renaissance is Engine-4, which, at 24,000 square feet, is the largest coworking space in Puerto Rico. Housed in an old civil defense base, its mixed-use facilities are home to an array of equipment like soldering tools, oscilloscopes, and 3D printers. Miranda found himself at the space by way of Parallel18, where he met a fellow member – also part of the Engine-4 world – who introduced him.

He was blown away by the facility. “I didn’t know that they had so much resources in there for hardware prototyping and for hardware start-ups,” Miranda recollects. He was more accustomed to seeing young, software-focused companies, both in Puerto Rico and in the news in general. “Hardware start-ups are more difficult and less common in the island…so I was impressed that [Engine-4] had all these resources, 3D printing, everything.”

Both Parallel18 and Engine-4 host Gigabots for their members to use as a prototyping and design resource. Miranda took advantage of the two locations during the creation of WALT, printing full-scale models that dwarved the build volume of his desktop 3D printer at home.

“With these kinds of programs, we not only have the funds, we have an alternative to use resources directly,” he explains. Pre18 provided them with monetary grants, and, equally as beneficial, Engine-4 offered them access to machinery that would have otherwise been prohibitively expensive.

Miranda doesn’t know how WATRIC would have gotten to a final design without 3D printing.

He describes the early design stages, modeling the unit using CAD. “We thought that it was functional in that moment,” he recounts, “but it wasn’t until we had the physical prototype actually printed that we were able to improve it and to see what needed to be changed.” The phenomenon is all too common for product designers. A 3D design that seems watertight on a screen immediately gives up its flaws once its form enters the physical realm.

“Prototyping is our daily activity,” Miranda says. “3D printing is helping us to iterate. When we make our prototype, we see where we need to improve.”

The model they printed at Engine-4 clocked in at around 26 hours, designed specifically to allow them to move seamlessly from 3D printing into injection molding.

While WATRIC Energy Resources finishes the development and scaling of their drinking water product, they have created a smaller, spinoff version to get people a taste of their technology’s capabilities: a smart indoor plant watering system called WALTY. They will be launching a Kickstarter for this product, using funds raised to move forward with their larger mission of potable water-producing systems.

Follow WATRIC’s progress and get notified when their Kickstarter launches, at https://watricer.com/support-us

Reassessing Our Mission in the Context of Systemic Racism

Reassessing Our Mission in the Context of Systemic Racism

Over the last week, our hearts have been broken for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and for others who have suffered from police brutality, as well as for their families and the black community as a whole. Like others before us have said, we too say:

Black Lives Matter.

The recent protests have humbled us to revisit our core mission: to democratize manufacturing and empower people to be problem solvers for their communities. A 3D printer is a tool that enables this, and our community has awed us – especially during the COVID-19 crisis – by proving that, when given the means to make anything you can imagine, people will create for others, problem solve for others, and 3D print with purpose.

We are using the current dialogue as an opportunity to critically assess how we can better accomplish our core mission to empower people through 3D printing while also taking active steps to include those who have historically been excluded from formalized innovation, entrepreneurship, and education spaces. As a small company with employees from a variety of diverse backgrounds, we recognize that we still skew predominantly white. We are also part of the tech sector, a community whose demographics are changing, but still look predominantly white, male, and monied. We believe active – not passive – inclusion is how we transform these spaces to be more welcoming and equitable for all. And that firmly includes the black community.

re:3D will take the following steps:

We will increase our efforts to amplify the voices of diverse leaders in 3D printing and STEM fields. Not just people who use Gigabots, but people whose work broadens our collective understanding of for whom and what this technology is used. These voices are out there and deserve to be amplified so our youth can see themselves in the faces of leaders.

We will also increase our efforts to give students – especially minorities – access to this technology. We believe in enabling the next generation of change-makers who will move additive manufacturing to the next level. For resources, consider the paper: Making Through the Lens of Culture and Power: Towards Transformative Visions for Educational Equality by Shirin Vossoughi, Paula Hooper, and Meg Escudé, as well as the initiative 0Things by Josh Ajima with DesignMakeTeach.

We will be more intentional in our hiring process. We are a small company in a new field, but we have big dreams, and we want to be a company full of diverse dreamers. By advertising jobs and internships in places where diverse communities live and study, and by having open, honest, and fair interview processes, we can increase the diverse voices in the company. We believe this can only help us grow our mission and broaden our work. If our mission aligns with yours, please visit re3d.org/careers. We’d love to have you.

Internally, we will continue developing company culture to include conversations about diversity, race, privilege, and social justice in order to dismantle our own subconscious prejudices. This is so we go out into the world with a greater understanding, empathy, and sensitivity to racism in our country. We do this work so we can be the allies we want to be, both inside and outside of work.

We are indebted and grateful to the protestors for putting their safety at risk to blast the message of equality towards the forefront of our minds. And when the protests fade from the spotlight, we will not forget how they brought focus to not just recent examples of police brutality, but also to the overarching issues of systemic racism. We don’t want to be just reactionary; we want our efforts to be long-term, with the goal of creating lasting change.

We’d love your feedback and collaboration. Feel free to reach out if you or someone you know is a diverse leader who we can learn from, partner with, and amplify. Send us a message at info@re3d.org.