The world’s first 3D printer made from e-waste
3D printers number among the most sophisticated technological machines today. But would you have guessed that you can actually build one yourself using nothing but e-waste? No? Then take a look at “W.Afate”, the first open-source upcycling e-printer from Togo. Read More
Upcycled consumer goods, especially fashion items and accessories, have been trending in recent years – think of Tetra Pack bags, bottle cap earrings, or necklaces made from paper scrap. Nowadays, you can produce textiles and sponges from plastic waste, and chairs from car tires. But would you have guessed that you can actually build a 3D printer from waste?
A small group of hackers and builders from Togo have done it: They constructed the first 3D printer called W.Afate made almost entirely from e-waste. No big company and no huge funds are behind the project, just some creative minds who met at the WoeLab maker space in Togo’s capital Lomé. Since Europe ships and dumps huge amounts of electronic waste in West African countries, the raw materials are abundant there.
The W.Afate printer functions like a regular 3D printer: It can print any kind of small plastic items based on a 3D modelling file. And what’s more: It’s all open source. So if you want to build one yourself, the team will be happy to send you the instructions. Josué Tchirktema, one of the inventors, told us how it works.
Josué, can the W.Afate really print any plastic object just like common 3D printers do?
Yes. Even though W.Afate looks a bit different from the 3D printers you’ll find in the shops, it works just as well. It is pretty similar to the RepRap 3D printers from Britain, a simple low-cost solution using plastic filament or metal wire for production. The only constraints are due to the size of the machine, since of course you can’t print anything that’s bigger than the printer itself.
What sort of e-waste did you use? Did you also have to buy some new parts?
Each W.Afate recycles parts of old computers, scanners and printers. Recently we also used some flat screen elements. But we are obliged to purchase certain electronic components that we cannot obtain through recycling – like the circuit board, for instance.
The W.Afate is open source. That means the plans are freely available so anyone can reproduce it. If I wanted to build one for myself, what else would I need apart from your instructions?
All you need are some small tools like a hammer, pliers, drill, screwdriver and a welding gun, the e-waste elements and necessary electronics, of course, some patience, and a creative community around you.
What was the best product you’ve ever produced on your printer?
We once had to replace a quite complex component from a mechanical starter. It belonged to a farmer, who couldn’t do his daily work without his car. If we hadn’t managed to print him a new one, he would have faced serious trouble.
Is e-waste a serious problem in Togo?
Like all countries in the region, Togo is affected by the problem of computer waste, but it hasn’t become as big as in other countries yet. Some dumps have begun to bloom in the capital Lomé, but nothing compared to what can be observed in Agbogbloshie in Ghana, for instance.
How did you come up with the idea to build a 3D printer from e-waste?
All of us in the group that invented W.Afate are members of WoeLab, a maker space in Lomé that is committed to the concept of low high-tech. That means we try to expand or replicate advanced technology using local resources. In a 2012 workshop, we set up a RepRap printer called Prusa from a kit that we brought from France. Afterwards, we set ourselves the challenge of replicating this machine according to the low high-tech concept. We chose to build one from IT scrap, since this waste is now practically a local resource for us.
At the time, did you have any idea if it would work out in the end, or was it more of a coincidence that you achieved your goal?
We are a laboratory; we launch projects. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But we don’t leave much room for doubt. And the mentoring and financial, logistic and human resources offered by the WoeLab co-creation space has made a lot possible.
Who is using W.Afate printers at the moment?
Many printers have been set up in fablabs, showrooms, and start-up offices abroad. In Togo, most machines are used by the social organisations we cooperate with. We’re currently setting up the #3DprintAfrica programme, for example: We will visit 10 schools and train about 300 children in 3D printing technology next year.
Why do you think it is so important for Africans to have access to 3D printing technology?
It is a rapid prototyping technology and offers an alternative to big industry: Anyone can create and produce their own products without an expensive industrial infrastructure. In the African context, where almost all manufactured goods are imported, it could become a disruptive technology.
You’ve already mentioned the low high-tech concept that all projects and initiatives at the WoeLab are committed to. What is the philosophy of this maker space?
At WoeLab, we believe in the ethics of technological democracy. We want to break with elitism and innovate with the masses. African economies are more than 80% informal, so it is a concept that is well suited to the continent. We are using it in a very modest attempt to solve the problems that arise in our closest environment ourselves.
You have received many awards for inventing the W.Afate and you successfully ran two crowdfunding campaigns. What was the most important distinction for you personally?
I would say the Global Fab Awards in Barcelona in 2014, which rewarded the best project ever released from a fablab in the past ten years.
You’ve founded the start-up Woebots, whose task is the commercial distribution and further development of the W.Afate. What are your next steps at Woebots?
Besides supporting the #3DprintAfrica program, we’re currently modelling a strategy for the Western market. But we would like to note the W.Afate isn’t Woebots’ only product; we’re developing other e-waste based machines too, like IFAN, a multitask robot for agriculture.