Restart Podcast Ep. 62: How 3D printing can help us repair

TU Delft 3d printing

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3D printing technology is increasingly being used to aid repair, especially in the creation of spare parts. We invited Bas Flipsen and Julieta Bolaños Arriola to talk about their work in the field and how 3D printing can help solve the e-waste crisis. 

Flipsen is a senior researcher for the Faculty of Engineering at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) who teaches “circular” and sustainable design, among other topics. Both of our guests are heavily involved in a project called SHAREPAIR, with Bolaños Arriola being a researcher. The project aims to help and support citizens in strengthening the repair economy. While we’re not working on 3D printing, The Restart Project is one of the project partners as well. 

Reverse-engineering “circular design”

At TU Delft, they are researching how 3D printing can be a tool to support circular design. We talk about what this concept really means and what work we must do to be able to implement it. Flipsen points out that a key part of their work stems from taking things apart and the knowledge that is gained from reverse engineering. It can be as simple as: if a part cannot easily be removed then it cannot be reused. 

It is fascinating to hear of the types of projects that students at TU Delft have been undertaking. Bolaños Arriola gives us examples of the types of devices that have been tested for their ability to be 3D printed. From buttons on remote controls to bike accessories; students are encouraged to explore how existing, familiar designs can be optimised for 3D printing. They focus on practical, immediate applications.

Printing spare parts

Access to spare parts is a pillar of the Right to Repair. There are many reasons why spare parts are currently unavailable for many products. Bolaños Arriola mentions a few of these including issues with stock, manufacturers not supporting devices for long enough, and wanting to control who can repair. 

3D printing could be a way to make those spare parts available again… 3D printing could come into the game and generate spare parts for people to be able to fix their products.

Flipsen and Bolaños Arriola believe that 3D printing of spare parts could massively help this issue of access. For one, with the proper knowledge, people could print parts at home or at repair events in order to fix their own devices. Through reverse engineering, designs could be created for these parts without the help of manufacturers – who are historically not very supportive. 

Coffee machines and compromises

While 3D printing technology has come a long way, compromises still have to be made. Flipsen tells us about a recent project that involved students reverse-engineering and attempting to print the parts to recreate a Phillips Senseo coffee machine. During this process, they found issues relating to curvature and the flexibility of the materials they were using. 

Printing possibilities have become vast, with wood, metal, and more being potential materials. However, Bolaños Arriola points out that these high tech materials may not be available to the public. Therefore, they are exploring how they can adapt parts and mechanisms to be made from plastics instead. 

Strength in community

We talk about the obstacles that may arise when using 3D printing as a tool at repair events and at home. While the technology is becoming more accessible, it is “not magic” and takes time and adjustment to work properly. 

While people can have personal 3D printers, Flipsen and Bolaños Arriola promote the idea of community involvement. By sharing resources — money, space, knowledge — we can be more effective in solving problems and repairing products. Through these community spaces also, they hope to instigate interest in repair in younger generations. 

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[Photo courtesy of Industrial Design students at TU Delft]

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