How 3D Printing Filament is Made

The Extruder making filament at Maker Faire
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While I was at the Bay Area Maker Faire earlier this year, I met a few of the folks behind ProtoPlant, who among other things make 3D printing filament which they call Proto-Pasta. On a recent trip to Portland I had the chance to check out their manufacturing plant (in nearby Vancouver, Washington) as well as spend time with them during the Portland Mini-Maker Faire.

XOXO 2014 Portland

Proto-pasta started as a Kickstarter project for making carbon fibre reinforced 3D printing filament which was successfully funded. The machine above is the custom built extruder that they used to manufacture their own blends of filament for 3D printing.

Along with carbon fibre filament, they also make high temperature PLA which unlike regular PLA, has a much higher heat resistance and the printed object behaves more like ABS than PLA. A simple example of how this is useful is if you wanted to print a custom sleeve for your morning coffee – regular PLA would get soft by being in contact with the hot coffee…the high temp PLA won’t get soft at the lower temperatures so will maintain it’s shape.

Carbon fibre PLA

I’ve played a bit with their carbon fibre filament. As they suggest, it is a little trickier to handle than regular PLA because it’s more brittle. But I was able to use it successfully to print a few different objects, including this GoPro wrench which turned out great.

Carbon fibre PLA

It was especially cool to see their custom designed filament extruders in person. They got extra bonus points for bringing their machine to Maker Faire and had it running for two days in some of the warmest weather Portland’s had all summer. I’ve used tons of filament in my years of 3D printing but never saw it being made in front of me.

They start with pellets of the PLA/carbon fibre material:

ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

which gets put into a hopper at the top of the extrusion machine:

ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

After heating, it gets pushed out this tube and begins the cooling process:
ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

Here’s a video showing the path that the filament goes through the machine:

The whole thing is currently controlled by a Raspberry Pi:
ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

To show off their filament, they mounted a battery powered Printrbot Simple Metal to a backpack frame and wondered around the Maker Faire grounds printing key tags in carbon fibre:

ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

ProtoPlant @ PDX Maker Faire

These guys (and gals) are doing some seriously cool stuff and are great folks too. I love the mix of clever engineering and problem solving they are doing in the 3D printing space. The true definition of a maker.

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