Hackers turn trash into treasure with 3D printer built from e-waste

-August 01, 2014

What’s a hackerspace doing in West Africa? And can it really build a sub-$100 3D printer out of discarded e-junk? “The better question is why hasn’t anyone thought to set up a hackerspace before now” says Afate Gnikou, one of the principal members of Woelab, a hackerspace based in Togo, West Africa. With prototypes already printing parts for the next generation of machines, Gnikou and his colleagues at Woelab are close to realizing their goal of creating a 3D printer which can to turn the region’s growing piles of imported e-waste from an environmental problem into an economic asset.

Dubbed the W.Afate (Woelab+ the inventor’s name), the printer’s design is based on the Prusa Mendel, a popular open-source design developed by the RepRap Forum, which has been adapted to make use of components salvaged from discarded printers, scanners . According to a story published May 2013 in 3D Printing Industry, the idea for the scrappy little printer occurred during AchiCamp, a workshop on architecture and urban design, held in Lomé, Togo’s capital.

Woelab has already demonstrated working prototypes at several 3D printing conferences, including 3D Printshow 2014, in New York, where the video clip below this paragraph was shot. The project’s goal is to “democratize” the original open-source design for the Prusa Mendel printer to enable anyone with basic technical skills to build their own printer from the relatively-abundant e-scrap being brought to Africa for recycling and/or disposal *. Gnikou obtained funding to support development of printer kits and open source documentation for the design from a campaign on Ulule, a European crowdfunding site. In addition to the documentation, they produced several working models.

E Waste 3D Printer from BourneDigital on Vimeo.

Afate Gnikou led a team of West African Makers who developed a functional 3D printer, made primarily from with salvaged from discarded consumer electronics.Click here to see the video in fill resolution.

The demo unit we saw operating in NY had a raw, unfinished, appearance, which contrasted sharply with the sleek lines and carefully-chosen color schemes of the dozens of commercial units on display at the exhibit hall. As shown in the photo below, W.Afate’s frame is constructed from the case of a PC tower case and a mismatched assortment of stepper motors, salvaged from scanners and printers, driving the X/Y/Z stages as well as the printer’s filament feeder mechanism. A salvaged PC power supply bolted to the side of the printer’s frame drives the entire assembly.

There are still a few parts which must be purchased, including the hot end for the print head and an Arduino-based development board (typically based on Atmel’s Mega 256 MCU) which serves as both a controller for the printer’s mechanisms and a communication interface which allows it to exchange files and commands with the user’s PC. The $50-$75 cost of the controller board is a significant expense in terms of the average income of a West African, but it's an affordable luxury since the machine it drives delivers much of the functionality of commercially-produced units costing $750-$1000+. **

But beneath its MacGyyver-esque appearance lurks a rather well-engineered machine. It doesn’t set any speed records, and it seems to need a bit more frequent fine-tuning than a store-bought unit but most of the samples it produced appeared to be at least as well-formed and sturdy as one would get from a standard Prusa printer. Afate said that he expects that the final design which will be released for general use will have additional refinements which will improve print quality and reduce the amount of tinkering a user will have to do in order produce it.

If you speak French, you’ll enjoy this description of the print head’s design (above) and a video of the first test of the extruder mechanism (below).

Woelab has several other projects underway which use Maker-type technologies to create tools which address some of the region’s unique problems and opportunities. These include an Arduino-controlled water-conserving irrigation system and implementing an African version of the OmNom plastic recycling system.


*For more information about e-waste exports to China, Africa and elsewhere, see Salon’s excellent articleWhere computers go to die — and kill
** Editor’s note: Since the project is being run on a minimal budget, I’ve made inquiries with Atmel, Arduino, STMicro and a couple of other companies about obtaining some processor boards, development tools and technical support for the W.Afate project. All the companies I've contacted have expressed interest but, at least so far, none of them have taken any action. So, if you, or anyone you know, can put me in touch with someone interested in helping make this dream a reality, please contact me at LEDitor(at)green-electronics(dot)com.

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