Saving the Planet and Its People with 3D Printing in 2017

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With each year that goes by, it gets more and more important to do whatever we can to help our environment, save wildlife and prevent climate change, not to mention helping our fellow human beings. As we’ve seen over the years, there are plenty of ways that 3D printing can be used to help the environment and people in need, whether it’s through recycling plastic into filament, building robots to clean up beaches, or coming up with new ways to filter and deliver water. While a lot of bad things happened in 2017, there was also plenty that gave us reason to hope, and 3D printing played a big role in making the future better in many ways. Here are some of our favorite environmental and humanitarian stories from this year.


The Refabricator [Image: NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given via Newsweek]

Recycling is important not just on the Earth, but above it as well, and this fall the announcement was made that the plastic-recycling Refabricator would be sent up to the International Space Station to recycle plastic into 3D printing material in the spring. The goal is for the machine to not only make space a zero-waste zone, but also eventually to be used on the moon and Mars, reducing the amount of material that will need to be brought along on long missions.

Back on Earth, startup Fishy Filaments made a splash (sorry) by raising money through a successful crowdfunding campaign and then garnering support from numerous investors. The Cornwall-based company was formed for the purpose of helping to clean up the oceans by recycling used fishing nets into 3D printer filament. Supporters and investors were enthusiastic about the idea, eager to reduce the amount of wildlife caught in discarded nets and the amount of plastic clogging up landfills.

The organization Re:Purpose for Good initiated a recycling project that benefited not only the environment, but people with missing limbs. The group held a successful crowdfunding campaign that involved creating robotic prosthetic devices out of recycled plastic and e-waste. Re:Purpose for Good planned to create custom prosthetics out of recycled for people in need, and also to teach children about the 3D printing and prosthetic assembly process.

[Image: Re:Purpose for Good]


Erin Kennedy founded Robot Missions for the purpose of 3D printing robots that would clean up beaches. The robots are designed to work in swarms, trundling along beaches and scooping up the smaller pieces of plastic that are easily missed by human trash-pickers. One of the robots has undergone several field tests and is in the process of being perfected. Robot Missions has another purpose – bringing together makers and environmentalists to combine their skills in order to help save the planet.

[Image: Robot Missions]

“…Makers are super creative with limited resources and bring their tools. However, they sometimes do not see how to apply their skills to a problem,” said Kennedy. “Environmentalists can give direction to the problems, and understand the deeper parts of it. Sometimes they can be skeptical of the technology, as they haven’t been a part of its development or had any input about it. If we are able to help both groups work together, then we will be able to implement the innovations into existing efforts faster.”

[Image: Alain Herzog/EPFL]

Speaking of beach robots, the Envirobot is designed to swim through water and gather information about different forms of water pollution. The robot looks and moves like an eel and was specially designed so that it doesn’t disturb aquatic life forms when it swims through. It is composed of multiple modules that each contain a type of sensor, whether mechanical or biological, and its creators hope that it will eventually be able to detect heavy metals such as mercury.

Clean Water

In developing countries, one of the most pressing issues is that of access to clean water. In many countries, simply getting enough water for daily needs involves walking an average of three miles round trip, carrying a jug weighing 40 pounds on the way back. In areas suffering from drought, the walk can be 15 miles or more. Women and children are often tasked with getting water, which takes up most of their time and keeps them away from things like pursuing education.

The solar-powered, partially 3D printed Watt-r cart is designed to carry a dozen 20-liter containers of water at a time. It’s aimed at entrepreneurs who will sell water to local villages, taking the burden of collecting water off women and children and providing a means of income. Jose Paris, the inventor of Watt-r, plans to test the design in Kenya in early 2018.

[Image: Jose Paris]

Being able to access water is crucial, but that water also has to be clean enough to safely drink, and that’s another big issue. But Emma Emanuelsson, a chemical engineer at the University of Bath, used 3D printing to prototype a water purification device made of black plastic that heats up in the sun. The device collects and passes water through a labyrinth-like series of channels, and the heat from the black plastic kills any pathogens that may be in the water. Emanuelsson and her team hope that eventually, about 10,000 of the devices will be produced every year by local workers, primarily in Africa where there is a dire need for clean water.

[Image: University of Bath]

Those are just a few of the ways that people have been using 3D printing to improve the Earth and the lives of people living on it. There’s a tremendous amount of good that can be done using 3D printing, and our hope for the new year is that people continue to use their ingenuity and compassion to help others and the planet with the technology.

Discuss these stories and other 3D printing topics at or share your thoughts below. 


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