From discarded plastics to 3D printer ‘ink’

Prototype Northwest started as a crowd-funded group with the goal of building a sustainable method for creating filament or “ink” for 3D printers.

Prototype Northwest’s owners

A group of six entrepreneurial inventors from Bellevue are working to preserve the planet, one piece of plastic at a time.

Prototype Northwest started as a crowd-funded group with the goal of building a sustainable method for creating filament or “ink” for 3D printers.

The “ink” for 3D printers is a plastic filament that is continuously heat-welded together through a computer-controlled process to “print” almost any three-dimensionally shaped object.

But, in the process of developing a bench top filament extruder, a device that could transform ground up recycled plastic into spools of “ink,” the group discovered they were on the verge of something much bigger.

Founder Liz Havlin said when she first discovered what 3D printing was several years ago, she was immediately struck by how expensive spools of the filament were, and with its massively growing popularity, how fast those prices rose.

Currently a spool of filament, roughly 2.2 pounds, costs $36 plus shipping and handling, she said, and is often made from new petroleum. Using recyclable plastics, such as pop bottles, Havlin can make that same spool for about $3 and prevent that bottle from ending up in a landfill or the ocean.

Using a design inspired by inventor Hugh Lyman’s extruder, which turned virgin plastic pellets into usable filament, Havlin said for her “recycled plastic was the only way to go.”

“This isn’t about becoming an extruder building company,” Havlin said. “This is about human beings retaining the right to manufacture for themselves without having to purchase proprietary consumables or pollute the planet any further than we already have.”

It was about a year ago when Tristan Jones, a junior at Bellevue High School who was also studying at Bellevue College, reached out to Havlin after finding her research online.

In the following months, Jones and Havlin met several times to discuss the technology’s capabilities. They discovered the plastics couldn’t just be taken out of a landfill and ground up; it needed to be clean and dry to make a filament that wouldn’t jam the 3D printer.

While they might not be able to pull plastics floating in the ocean, they can prevent them from getting there in the first place, Jones said.

“We’re making recycling cool again,” Jones said. “We can’t save the whole planet, but we can prevent these materials from being dumped into landfills and the oceans. We can change the 3D printing game. There’s enough plastic to make whatever we need if we recycle it responsibly. There’s no need for more in the waste stream.”

Printing a design for the first time typically takes three tries to get measurements exact, Havlin said. Those trial prints often end up as garbage, but someone can transform it back into filament using an extruder.

Seeing the company’s potential, Jones reached out to his friends; Trevor Jahnke, Henry Roberts, Dolgoon Khatantuwl (D.K.) and his older brother, Colby Jones to join him and Havlin.

D.K., who plans on attending Western Washington University next fall to study automotive engineering, said there’s a huge potential of printing 3D car parts out of recycled auto bumpers.

“A lot of car companies use plastic for all sorts of parts. If it breaks, those pieces could cost hundreds, thousands maybe, but using recyclable pieces and carbon fiber we can recreate those pieces at a fraction of the cost,” he said. “We’ve already spoken to several local dealers who are very excited about the idea.”

For the auto dealers, printing replacement parts at a severely reduced cost gives them the ability to pass the savings onto their customers who are more likely to remain their customers as opposed to going to a third-party dealer or mechanic.

As word spreads about recyclable 3D printer filament, companies looking to print their products environmentally responsibly are reaching out in growing numbers, which means growth and additional workspace.

“We’re currently looking for industrial space to meet more of the demand,” Havlin said. “Ideally we’d be able to have the space to use 3D printers to build our extruders to send to customers to use while also making recycled filament. We’re bringing back local manufacturing.”

With the expanding business, the six members of Prototype Northwest are also looking for additional investment opportunities, and with the passage of recent legislation allowing crowd sourcing funds to be used for profits, anyone can get in on the ground floor, Havlin said.

“Some people may want to invest to get cheap 3D printer filament, others might see our environmental impact; regardless the reason, we want to hear from everyone in our community to help us decide how we grow this company,” she said.

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