When the pandemic hit, the supply chain broke. Not only was it hard to ship regular goods, but the global shipping network was also unable to equip workers with enough personal protective equipment to reduce the logjam. Around that time, 3D printing company re: 3D starting planning, not just how to provide face shields and other PPE, but how to skip some of those shipping problems altogether.
The Gigalab is the culmination of that project. With the Gigalab, re: 3D aims to provide everything needed to turn recyclable material, like water bottles or plastic cups, into useful goods. The setup includes three main components. A granulator shreds used plastic. Next, a drier removes excess moisture. Finally, the Gigabot X 3D printer… er, well, it prints objects. You also need some table space to do work, like cutting up plastic bottles.
All of these fits inside a single shipping container that can be sent anywhere in the world. Put more simply: It’s a portable lab where trash goes in and treasure comes out.
The key to making the lab work is a massive innovation in a small part of the 3D printing process: the extruder. Most 3D printers create objects using an extrusion system — that is, by heating plastic and then pressing it through a nozzle onto a print bed. If you’ve ever seen a consumer-grade 3D printer, you’ve probably seen this plastic come in the form of a filament, but some printers use pellets instead. These little processed spheres or cylinders can flow smoothly into the extrusion system, but they are easier to pack and can be continuously fed into some 3D printers.
Turning recyclable materials, like used plastic bottles, into pellets usually means shipping the material to a processing center. There, they get melted down, molded into pellets, and shipped to where they’re needed (which can sometimes lead to getting pellets lost in transit and polluting the environment).
The Gigabot X, however, can skip the pelleting process altogether. Unlike most 3D printers, it can take shredded plastics — which are irregularly shaped and don’t flow as well as pellets — without getting jammed up and causing prints to fail. This means used plastics can be shredded directly into the Gigalab’s granulator. After a brief stop in the drier to remove excess moisture, they can be poured directly into the Gigabot X’s feeder.
Plastic bottles and cups are the most obvious raw materials, but the Gigalab can process plenty more. At a meetup in Austin during SXSW, re: 3D showed me the remainders of plastic sheets that had been used to print driver licenses. Re: 3D ambassador Charlotte Craff told WIRED that these could be tossed into the granulator. Even the support structures that one 3D print needs to work properly can be broken off and regranulated to be used in the next print.