Waste is only waste until the loop is closed. Then it becomes feedstock, and that’s just what the Filabot company in Barre, VT, is helping make happen.
Filabot had its origin in 2011 when Tyler McNaney, then a freshman at Vermont Technical College, first learned about 3D printing. The process uses a machine to build things, from toys to machine parts to houses, by building up layers. A large portion of 3D printed objects are made of plastic, and plastic is a problem in the world. At least plastic waste is.
But McNaney was struck by a brilliant idea. What if he could invent a machine that would take waste plastic and turn it into the filament used by 3D printers? That could close the loop and turn garbage into feedstock.
From idea to company, the trip was short. Without so much as a prototype, he raised $32,000 through a kickstarter campaign, quit college, and within a year and a half had a machine that would grind up waste plastic into chips and extrude it into a filament. That filament was not quite ready for prime time; it tended to behave inconsistently. The filament needed to be chopped into small pellets, which go through a similar extrusion process to be turned into filament that can be used in a 3D printer. McNaney built 67 Filabot EX2 machines while keeping up with his studies at VTC but dropped out with one semester to go, in order to devote himself fulltime to the company as it started to take off.
Growing up in Milton, VT, McNaney was a tinkerer from childhood, who describes hovering greedily while his father worked on repairing broken household items. If something wasn’t reparable, it was fair game to be cannibalized for parts, and in doing so he and his brothers learned how machines work. They built racing lawn mowers and go carts, repaired computers and Segways, and amazed the neighbors with their inventions.
McNaney was also a Boy Scout, and his experiences camping inspired a love of nature and a ‘leave no trace’ ethic, that he brings to his business. The singular purpose of Filabot, what the team works on every day, is to recycle the widest range of plastic possible.
McNaney is actually a fan of plastic and aknowledges its positive, life-changing qualities. But plastic in the wrong place is pollution, and there is a lot of plastic in the wrong place on this planet. In his TedX talk McNaney said, “After all this learning, it is a burden to know the full scope of the plastic issue.” However, if the loop was closed, we wouldn’t have a problem. He believes plastic, a symptom of materialism out of balance, will be one of the world’s biggest issues over the next century.
Enter Filabot. It makes a machine that’s been described as a sausage grinder on top of a spaghetti maker. It grinds plastic into small pieces and pushes it into a melter. Then the plastic is extruded into different-sized filaments, air-cooled, and wound onto a spool.
Actually Filabot puts out many machines at this point, to handle all the stages of making filament for 3D printers. The first step in the process is the reclaimer, which grinds the plastic. Plastic is then dried, using an oven, dessicants, or a standard polymer dryer. Next comes granular extrusion, through a Filabot EX2 or EX6. The first-stage filament is air-cooled, and then goes through a Filabot pelletizer, then heated and extruded again to become a spool of final filament ready to use for 3D printing. Filabot also sells a fume extractor to reduce customers’ exposure to toxic chemicals.
One problem Filabot is able to solve is the high failure rate of 3D printing itself. It allows makers to grind up failed prints and use them again. It’s also helpful in the recycling world. In a 2019 article in The Montpelier Bridge, McNaney noted that contamination with black coffee lids, not generally recyclable, could reduce the price of a bale of plastic by 80%. Can these be fed into the hopper to become printer filament? Possibly. McNaney has expanded the range continually and is still working on a solution for PET, the material from which plastic soda bottles are made. Indications from the website are thatit looks as if there may be something to reveal in 2022.
Based in Barre, Filabot has 26 employees including McNaney and his wife. The design team works in Barre and machines are assembled in Rutland. The company has two main types of users, those mostly interested in recycling plastics into filament, and research and development labs and facilities interested in making new polymers. Some clients need filament that doesn’t yet exist in a market, with special properties for their application.
Customers include NASA, the Pentagon, LEGO, Xerox, Dow, Intel, and many others. A sister company, Massive Dimension, focuses on larger-scale 3D printing. Filabot also supplies a range of filament-making and 3D printing supplies. The bigger the object printed, the more plastic is being recycled.
In 2018, McNaney was named to Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30” list in the manufacturing and industry category. Filabot donates filament to the ENable community, which creates prosthetic hands for people in need around the world.
Jessie Haas has lived off-grid for over 35 years. She is the author of 40 books, most recently The Hungry Place.