From plastic waste to fodder for 3D printing, Polyformer bridges the gap

Bringing three-dimensional models designed on your computer screens to life in a tangible physical form, the process of 3D-printing, essentially an additive manufacturing process, seems to have simply revolutionized production matrices. While its properties of flexibility, modularity, material economy, and efficiency have led to its applications being extended to diverse fields including construction, medical sciences, and even robotics, the technology still continues to change and evolve, with a sight to potentially disrupt the manufacturing logistics and inventory management industries in the coming years. Using this additive, future-oriented process to rectify or at least curb a major one of our present wrongs, industrial designer Reiten Cheng has devised Polyformer with the thought of mitigating the plastic crisis, more specifically focusing on plastic PET bottles. Following the simple motto of “Reshape, Recreate and Reproduce”, the unique product finds its inception at the crossroads between 3D-printing and plastic waste.

  • From filament to spool, the PET in plastic bottles is lent a new life Image: James Chou

  • Polyformer proposes a modular assembly with individual components that can be 3D printed or replaced with more easily replaceable components |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    Polyformer proposes a modular assembly with individual components that can be 3D printed or replaced with more easily replaceable components Image: James Chou

  • Diagrammatic representation of Polyformer's process |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    Diagrammatic representation of Polyformer’s process Image: Courtesy of Reiten Chang

A simple question, “What if PET bottles have a second life?” led Reiten to statistically note how long traditional recycling processes were, and how only 28.1 percent of PET bottles ended up getting recycled. Left to ponder upon a number of possibilities along with the proverbial “What If”, coupled with his knowledge in the fields of engineering and design, Reiten designed Polyformer, a 3D-printed, compact, uncomplicated, and one-of-a-kind machine that recycles PET bottles into filaments for other 3D printers to use.

  • The bottle is first shredded into strands of uniform thickness using a custom made slicer |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    The bottle is first shredded into strands of uniform thickness using a custom made slicer Image: James Chou

  • The Polyformer's Fetching tool |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    The Polyformer’s “Fetching” tool Image: James Chou

  • Mounting the end of the filament to the spool to automate the process ahead |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    Mounting the end of the filament to the spool to automate the process aheadImage: Courtesy of Reiten Chang

  • Removable spool that can be used in regular 3D printers |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    Removable spool that can be used in regular 3D printers Image: James Chou

Designed for a wide user base including designers and experienced 3D printers working with an environmentally sustainable outlook, Polyformer serves as a way to upcycle efficiently. The machinic composition of the device itself is 3D printed from recycled plastic printing filaments, thus, evolving it as a product that may operate in a self-sustaining cycle. The product is further shared as an open-source project with all working files available on its GitHub page for interested individuals to download, with Reiten stating, “I am not interested in profiting from this project. I want more people to join the project and share a collective effort in solving the plastic waste problem.”

  • Animation showcasing the closing and opening of Polyformer, optimizing the space it uses |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    Animation showcasing the closing and opening of Polyformer, optimizing the space it uses Image: James Chou

  • The translucent assembly helps in providing a view of the device's functionings to the user |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    The translucent assembly helps in providing a view of the device’s functionings to the user Image: James Chou

  • A Polyformer generated spool mounted on a regular 3D printer |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    A Polyformer generated spool mounted on a regular 3D printerImage: James Chou

  • Filament fitted in the motorized spool |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    Filament fitted in the motorized spool Image: James Chou

Polyformer employs an easy-to-follow process of turning commonly found PET bottles into 3D printing filaments. The bottle is shredded into long pieces of equal width ribbons using a bottle-slicing tool with stacked bearings. The ribbons are then further put into a hotend that thermoforms the piece into a filament of 1.75mm as it goes through a brass nozzle of the same size. The user has to then mount this end of the ribbon on the red motorized spool to automate the process of cooling down, finally creating the desired filaments.

With different iterations of the larger structure of the product as well as the bottle slicer, Polyformer is further innovated upon through a study of the architecture of its mechanism, fused with design thinking and user testing outcomes. Studying the level of user touch points on each part in the prototype, the machine was further put together keeping in mind usability and a minimal, neat aesthetic treatment. Starting with rough sketches on a blank sheet, a sleek, compact, and user-friendly design, of the future and for the future, was created.

  • Sketches and iterations of the 'architecture' of Polyformer |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    Sketches and iterations of the ‘architecture’ of Polyformer Image: Courtesy of Reiten Chang

  • System diagram of the Polyformer |  Polyformer |  Reit Chang |  STIRworld

    System diagram of the Polyformer Image: Courtesy of Reiten Chang

Following the suite of modular architecture in its design, the individual parts are either 3D printed themselves or easily attainable, or even swapped out depending on availability and the designer’s wish. The unique vertical translucent L-shaped form in Polyformer allows the users to easily interact with Polyformer’s functioning in real time, while optimizing the space it takes. The whole outer shell can be easily opened or closed to keep the user away from touching the hotend. As a result of being 3D printed, the entire machine subsumes a materiality resembling frosted glass, with the occasional added red elevating the aesthetics of the overall design. With every prototype printed, this ongoing project continues to evolve to an uncertain final form that the world is yet to see. Until then, any 3D printer user or designer can simply have his own iterations and changes made to the design for his ease and comfort, while keeping the environment in mind.

(Text by Rashi Karkoon, intern at STIRworld)

New Technology Era

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