In interviews with The Bridge, McNaney described 3D printing as “the ultimate widget maker,” because production costs can be so low. Customization is easy. Think how a paper printer can be switched effortlessly from printing business letters to sonnets. Similarly, a 3D printer “can make all sorts of customized objects and not have to have a big setup [for each one],” McNaney said.
But any discussion of production with plastics nowadays leads to the questions of waste, which is creating ever more pressure and pollution on a planetary scale, including the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and contamination from micro-plastic particles in soil, water, wildlife, and even the human body.
Recycling waste plastic is where Filabot’s business model comes in. McNaney said, “There’s a huge failure rate with 3D printing. Being able to recycle that [3D printing waste] and turn it into useful material again is something we’ve been working with.”
They are also working to turn other types of waste plastics into raw material for 3D printing. “There are waste streams of plastic that are not being recycled. For example, black coffee lids will lower the price of a bale at a recycling facility down to $20, but when removed, it rises it to $100.”
Since 3D printing uses small, decentralized production, Filabot makes machines for similarly small-scale recycling. Many 3D plastic printers use plastic filament, like the “string” used in weed whackers, as the raw material. Filabot sells three models of extruders and claims they can be used to make filament from thousands of plastics.
An article on the Filabot website says their tests have shown their most advanced extruder is capable of making filament from 15 families of plastic, including nylon, ABS, and HDPE. An additional five classes are rated as “difficult” but possible to use.
McNaney said the idea for Filabot came to him at the end of his first semester at Vermont Technical College. “I learned about 3D printing two days before holiday break…and was amazed. I thought, ‘I could have this machine…in my dorm room, printing and making things.’” He got excited about turning waste plastic into 3D prints, so over holiday break he created a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for a waste plastic extruder. The idea was untested; he had no prototype; and he said the campaign’s video was “awful quality.” Nonetheless, in 30 days he raised more than $32,000, far exceeding the $10,000 goal he had set.
With money in hand, he went back to VTC and tinkered with extruder technology while doing his coursework. Eventually he quit school to concentrate on the Filabot company, which now employs eight people at the Barre headquarters and research facility, with the machine assembly done in Rutland. McNaney made Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” list of young entrepreneurs in 2017. “I’m still waiting for my honorary degree,” McNaney jokes.
Filabot started in an old granite shed in Montpelier, McNaney said, and when they needed more space, they moved to their present location in a warehouse off South Main Street in Barre. Other than the space being attractive and available, he said there was no specific reason for choosing Barre. However, he added, “It’s a good, central location,” with their engineer commuting from Springfield and McNaney coming from Essex. Spaulding High School in Barre is also providing Filabot with interns now.
One goal of current technology development at Filabot is to commercialize a small-scale grinder. That machine would turn waste plastic into powder for the extruders to use. Another is to commercialize a way to make filament 100 percent from old plastic bottles; right now, Filabot users can only mix in 50 percent of the plastic from plastic bottles and still make good filament. And the research team is continually testing new inputs. McNaney said, “In May, we did cool tests with toothbrushes, vacuum nozzles, and Legos.”
Finally, they’re scaling up the small-scale technology of 3D printing. While a common size limitation for 3D printing is one cubic foot, Filabot is developing part of a printer that could be used to create objects up to eight feet in any direction. This new extruder head would also simplify production by making it possible to skip the filament altogether; ground plastic or plastic beads would be fed directly into the extruder.
McNaney commented, “We want to print big chairs, cars… And that kind of dives into using more waste plastic, which is really exciting.”