Lyndsey is the co-founder of Reflow, which converts recyclable plastic into 3D print filaments using open source technology. She is explaining here how Reflow met all three of her perfect job requirements: technology, sustainability and social good.
Lyndsey, could you let us know about your background and what brought you into 3D printing in the first place?
I studied mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and worked in automotive engineering and sustainable buildings in the Toronto area before moving to the Netherlands 1.5 years ago. I have always been interested in sustainability and waste reduction, which is how I came into 3D printing, believe it or not. I was introduced to my co-founder, Jasper, who was working on Reflow, named 3D From Waste at the time, and I was immediately intrigued. I remember walking away from my first conversation with him and being really excited about the possibilities of 3D printing that I hadn’t considered before.
What was your very first experience with 3D Printing?
My first experience with 3D printing was assembling a Prussa i3 kit printer. I figured it was the best way to get into the nitty gritty of how FDM 3D printing works. It was a challenge, mostly because the kit I bought didn’t come with any instructions, but also a lot of fun! The first thing I ever 3D printed was a replacement part for a 3D printer built from eWaste in Nairobi that had a bit of damage on its trip back to Amsterdam. It’s practical and boring, but the truth!
Could you explain furthermore what Reflow is and the technology behind it?
Reflow converts plastic waste into 3D print filament and uses the profits to stabilize the income and working conditions of waste collectors and help build local economies and manufacturing capability in the regions where we work. It also keeps plastic bottles out of landfills, off the streets, from being burned, or in our oceans.
We use an open-source extruder that was developed in partnership with techfortrade, a UK non-profit. There are two types of extruders currently used to make filament: the desktop extruders that have a low throughput and whose filament quality is uncertain, and the industrial extruders who can make high volumes of quality filament with virgin plastic. Our aim is to be able to produce the high quality filament of the industrial extruders but on a smaller scale that can be distributed throughout the world. We’d love to have a worldwide network of hubs producing recycled filament for their local communities.
How does recycling plastic for 3D printing work?
Recycling plastic for 3D printing is quite similar to recycling plastic for any other purpose. To start, waste plastic needs to be shredded into flakes. These flakes are then washed to remove any debris and residue and dried to remove all moisture. The dried flakes go into the extruder which melts the flakes at high pressure and extrudes them into filament. The process itself is simple, in theory, but has lots of technical challenges to overcome in each stage.
Can you recycle any kind of plastics?
Most plastics can be recycled, but need to be recycled with other plastics of the same type. If, for example, PET and ABS end up in a recycling process together, they won’t mix properly, like trying to mix oil and water. The result is structurally weak and unusable.
That’s one of the reasons we’re concentrating on PET for now. It’s used for nearly all bottled drinks, so it’s abundant everywhere in the world and can be easily identified by the #1 in the recycling symbol. Its also quite a nice plastic to use for 3D printing, since it has the toughness of ABS and the ease of PLA.
Where do you operate?
Reflow has an office and workshop in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, a production facility at STIC Lab in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and we’re in the process of setting up a second production facility in New Delhi, India. We’re also looking into growing our community of producers to places like Chile, Kenya, Portugal and the United States. Eventually we’d love to have producers all over the world making filament for their local 3D printing communities!
How did you come to build the company?
Reflow’s origins come from back in 2012 when the UK non-profit techfortrade ran the 3D4D challenge, whose goal was to build a community that shared the vision of 3D printing as a tool for change in developing markets. It led to the development of the first generation open-source extruder in 2013 and Reflow was established in 2014 through a collaboration with the Dutch foundation Enviu. We ran a successful Kickstarter earlier this year, and are on track to produce our flagship filament at the end of the year to deliver the Kickstarter rewards.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company to share with us?
There are a few stories of funny missteps that will be entertaining to share when Reflow really gets going, but I’m going to keep them under wraps for now!
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
I’m most excited about setting up our next production facility from scratch. We’re in the process of finding a location and some engineers in New Delhi, India. We hope to have that up and running in September, and I’m excited to be able to spend some time there. I’ve never been to India before!
What was the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
Almost every day I come across some really neat 3D printing initiatives that can have some real impact. I’m very intrigued by how 3D printing is being used in the aerospace industry for complex components and to reduce weight. The work being done by e-NABLE is incredibly impactful for the people they’ve made prostheses for. We’ve also recently met up with with 3D4MD, who are making 3D printable medical that they aim to have FDA approved.
As a woman entrepreneur, what was/ is your biggest challenge? Any challenge specific to the 3D printing industry?
I think my biggest challenges as an entrepreneur lie more in my personality and experience than in my gender. I’m naturally a quiet person and I find events where I’m meeting a lot of new people at the same time a bit daunting. I also wouldn’t describe myself as a natural ‘sales’ person, which can be an important trait when pitching the idea for Reflow. Thankfully I have some incredible co-founders who are much more natural at it than I am. And like everything, the more I practice, the better I get!
What makes the 3D printing industry particularly interesting for you:
- As a business person?
We’re always talking at Reflow about how it’s silly that 3D printing has been dubbed the next industrial revolution, but that it’s only directed at a small portion of the world population. I think 3D printing offers huge opportunities in developing regions. It will be able to mature in places where production infrastructure is broken in the same way that mobile banking did because of broken banking infrastructure.
- As a woman?
Think about the impact that microcredit has had on women in developing regions. Although there is some ambiguity in the evidence, generally when small-scale enterprises started by women succeed, the female entrepreneurs and their families are better off than before they borrowed. I think 3D printing has the potential to have a similar impact on women in developing regions, and I hope that Reflow can have a small hand in that.
What do you think of the 3D printing industry today? And how would you like to see it evolve?
The 3D printing industry seems like a young person to me; it has a lot of potential but it doesn’t really know where to go quite yet. There are some incredibly interesting applications for 3D printing in aerospace, health and art, among others. I would like to see the 3D printing industry continue to grow into a technology that can be used to make an impact drawing on its open-source principles.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
I think the biggest thing that we can do to encourage more women to become involved with 3D printing, and engineering in general, is to expose girls to it at a young age and to encourage their curiosity. I have seen a lot of great initiatives that teach kids about 3D printing, and I think it’s important to make sure that girls are encouraged to join in as much as the boys. I also think we (women) need to talk to the women and girls in our lives about the cool stuff we’re doing in our careers.
If you are interested in learning more about Lyndsey and Reflow, I invite you to check their website here.
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Thank you for reading and for sharing!