RETR3D: Building 3D printers from electronic waste

Matt’s project is called RETR3D, and his goal is to provide affordable 3D printing equipment for developing economies that can be locally sourced, locally maintained and locally improved.

Electronic Waste

Matt Rogge has been developing a printer design software to create 3D printers that anyone can build from electronic waste. Matt’s project is called RETR3D, and his goal is to provide affordable 3D printing equipment for developing economies that can be locally sourced, locally maintained and locally improved — using the 41 million metric tonnes of electronic waste (worth £34 billion) that is discarded globally.

After six years of helping disadvantaged communities throughout the world, Matthew (a two-time Peace Corps volunteer and former High School Chemistry and Physics teacher) is now the very hands-on Technical Director of techfortrade — a leading UK charity specifically focused on bridging the divide between innovative new technologies and international trade and economic development.

Matt’s work requires him to travel to some incredible places, including Kenya and Tanzania, where he provides 3D printing training and support for local people.

Matt and the wider techfortrade team believe that 3D printing can be as transformative in developing countries as the mobile phone — and by introducing 3D printing at a community level their aim is to create jobs through local manufacturing. Matt explains that with a 3D printer people can gain access to a wide variety of educational, medical and mechanical materials that would have otherwise been inaccessible.

Matt first became involved in 3D printing after working as a volunteer in Panama building rural water systems; here he first heard about 3D printing and saw an opportunity to further help the communities he’d been working with. When he returned home, Matt decided to build a 3D printer and study mechanical engineering with an emphasis in mechatronics at the University of Washington. His goal was to help make 3D printing technology available to the places where he had seen the greatest need.

However, Matt soon discovered a major problem with providing rural communities with conventional 3D printers. The number of specialised or proprietary parts required to keep these printers functioning was too high; power supplies, heated print beds, stepper motors, end stops, smooth rods etc. all need to be imported and importing is expensive. The price of imported parts and printers was often double or even triple the original cost due to shipping and customs charges. What’s more, Matt also discovered that if imported components were not used for the maintenance and repair of printers, the printers would often require significant design changes to function correctly.

But Matt didn’t give up; In Oaxaca, Mexico, where he had been working with the local Fablab on filament production from recycled plastics, he came up with the idea of creating 3D printer design software that could handle all of the design changes and modifications required to make and maintain a functional printer in the developing world using the lowest cost, local source of components possible – e-waste. Matt says he was inspired by a friend of the local people in Oaxaca who repaired discarded computers and donated the finished results to schools.

He also describes that the best part of working on the RETR3D project has been the opportunity to work with so many amazing people.

“I love to see people who become involved in the project talk about their goals and how they plan on using 3D printing as an effective way to achieve them.”

Cell phones and the internet have done wonders in the developing world in terms of enabling communication and the sharing of idea and information. Matt says he would like to see digital fabrication techniques, such as 3D printing, do the same for the sharing of things — and he’ll be thrilled to make whatever contribution he can to see that happen.

Through Matt and techfortrade the thousands of tonnes of e-waste that would otherwise end up in landfills can be transformed into a commercial and design opportunity of thousands if not millions of people in local communities across developing countries

Find out more about Project RETR3D.

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