3D Printing’s Sustainable + Open Source Revolution

5 minute read

3D Printed Local Motors Strati driving at IMTS

It’s no secret that 3D Printing - Additive Manufacturing - is enabling a technological shift in how engineers envision new designs and overcome previous limitations. Look no further to last week, where Local Motors printed their Strati - a 2 seat electric car (drive unit, motors, etc not printed, rather from a Renault Twizy) and assembled nonprinted components in just 44 hours on the show floor at the International Manufacturing Trade Show in Chicago. It was their third print of a Strati, a process that they have been perfecting this spring and summer at NTRC of Oak Ridge National Lab.

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[caption id=”attachment_263” align=”aligncenter” width=”760”]3D Printed Local Motors Strati during printing at IMTS Local Motors Strati during Printing at IMTS in Chicago.[/caption]

As you will come to learn, in typical Local Motors fashion, the Strati’s design started off in a worldwide contest where designers and engineers from all backgrounds submitted CAD models of their designs, with engineers at Local Motors and fan response determining the winner - and ultimately the final design. The Open source nature that launched Local Motors into the spot light with its first vehicle: the Rally Fighter and with subsequent products that they have released. Local Motor’s YouTube Channel further fulfills its open source nature with 1-3 and 5-7 minute videos detailing stages of oncoming projects as they happen, unlike any traditional automotive manufacturer. The result? Delivering products to consumer without the traditional waste of automotive manufacturing methods (which are vastly superior to those of even 2 decades ago with strong Kaizen programs) leading to a direct energy and environmental impact reduction. This is advanced manufacturing at the cutting edge of what is possible afforded - for the moment - at the corporate and research level.

3D Printing with GrabCad just got easier with Stratasys

GrabCAD's contribution to the 3D Printing Community: Social Equity + Free Collaboration

Just yesterday, GrabCad was purchased by one of the largest 3D Printing Companies in the world: Stratasys, who for the consumer market bought Makerbot last year. Grabcad is a free file collaboration repository that has over 1.5 million Engineers and over 500,000 CAD models ready to be downloaded by users and browsers of the site alike. I personally have used it to import directly into CAD assemblies for various projects and hold an active account. What GrabCad does for sustainability - now strengthened by its acquisition by Stratasys - is put 1000s of files collaboratively built by a global community for free access to print parts and models (not all models are for printing, but various software packages can easily convert models into printable files) with nothing more than an active internet connection. This helps to provide equity in access and help pave the way towards greater equity in printing, something that is still in the hands of upper middle class first-adopters and early mover corporations.


[caption id=”attachment_265” align=”aligncenter” width=”349”]3D Printed Dress 3D Printed Dress [From 3DPrint.com][/caption]

3D printing allows for expression and creativity way beyond just the STEM emphasis


As lesson plans are developed to integrate 3d printing into k-12 education across the United States, and eventually not just in prominent school districts but lower income ones as well, students of all backgrounds will gain experience in using 3D printing to express their creativity as well as understand the greater freedom that multiple types of printing can bring. They will also learn about what limitations exist in additive manufacturing - for now - which seen with initiatives like First Robotics, Lego Leagues, and others help drive towards a future career leveraging 3D printing experience. And this won’t be just for the STEM crowd that the United States misguidedly overemphasizes at the expense of liberal arts [1], [2], [3], but can also find its way in the arts, as wonderfully exhibited in this summer’s NYU Polytechnic’s Masters Course in Computational Fashion, and many other areas as well. These creative directions will help to broaden the appeal of 3D printing and its uses and make its way into more hands across economic and ethnic groups.

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With all of these parts being printed, what about the materials? Are we just wasting?

Finally, in the consumer market, PLA and ABS are the 2 most prominent plastic choices for the majority of plastic printers. As it turns out, PLA is starch based and most definitely can be composted; while ABS - typically fossil fuel based - can be recycled. This fact of generation of material and the world’s growing plastic problem hasn’t been lost on companies and entrepreneurs in developing nations to develop printers that can used a recycled feedstock. A group called the Ethical Filament Foundation has started to build an ethical filament production standard sourced from waste picker derived plastic recycling, much like other sustainable / ethical certifications. You can follow them @EthicalFilament.

With a project started last year between 3DSystems (Stratasys’s main competitor for largest 3D printing company), Coca-Cola, and will.i.am, the Ekocycle Cube 3D printer (based on 3DSystem’s Cubify Cube) showcases filament cartridges that contain 25% recycled PET content typically found in plastic drink bottles that Coca-Cola among other companies sell. While not on sale yet, will.i.am has already donated 2500 printers to First Robotics teams, further cementing a larger equity of 3d printing ability to kids across the United States to learn, create, and think creatively.

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A quick scan of the filament cartridges that you can buy for 3DSystems related Cubify Cube highlights the biobased PLA color choices students and adults alike can use to print detailed models in their favorite colors. Tying it in with accessible software, and nearly anyone can design and create models, parts, and products with a simple $1000 home printer.

Stay tuned for an upcoming article on rural inclusion of 3d printing

As the heading suggests, in the coming weeks, I will show you an upcoming Indiegogo campaign that looks to raise funds for a 3D printer (both a Cubify Cube and hopefully a Makerbot Replicator 2) in a rural Appalachia in the Copper Basin in SE Tennessee. The campaign will help to serve a larger purpose to 1) develop skills in a disruptive technology in an historically impoverished region to develop greater sense of well-being and prosperity without the boom-bust associated with mining and 2) develop a model for civic crowdfunding in a rural community.  With this project, I will help to provide real-world feedback of how these concepts I’ve listed here work and give a status on where areas can improve.


Ultimately, 3D printing is on a track towards reaching the “bottom of the pyramid” and also more of the middle than it currently is now, and with its application in a variety of fields, its promotion and inclusion of social equity and sustainability grows as the industry widens to the hands of more people. As these new ideas form and quickly become shaped by millions of new users, 3D printing technologies will continue to disrupt sources of innovation and add newcomers to a growing global audience.