Additive manufacturing using 3D printing technology has the potential to compress supply chains, minimise materials and energy use, and reduce waste, according to the US Department of Energy.
But beyond streamlining production processes, companies are also using 3D printers to bring innovative, low-cost energy solutions to the market itself – including portable solar arrays and bicycle-powered generators.
Organisations such as Peppermint Energy and Designs For Hope have used 3D printing technology from 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys to help individuals spur economic development, participate in emerging industries, and access educational opportunities in areas of the world that don’t have reliable access to electricity.
Worldwide, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. South Dakota-based Peppermint Energy is determined to change that with its flagship product called the FORTY2. Like a solar plant in a suitcase, the FORTY2 is a portable array that draws enough energy from the sun to provide light, refrigerate medicine or food, or power a laptop. A battery connected to the array stores power for use when the sun is down.
For real-world design testing of the FORTY2, Peppermint Energy’s development team used Stratasys 3D printing technology to 3D print functional prototypes. At three feet wide and roughly 60 pounds, the FORTY2 required a robust housing strong enough to hold all of its components. The first full-scale prototype, built in a Stratasys Fortus® 3D Production System, revealed some of the design considerations that led to the FORTY2’s simple operation.
In response to the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010, the FORTY2 was developed to bring emergency power to the area, and is being used in the rebuilding efforts.
“It’s only when you see it in physical form that you realise the form and function should be the same,” said Peppermint Energy co-founder Brian Gramm. Using Stratasys FDM 3D printing technology, the team was able to quickly make modifications, allowing for fast improvements and saving an estimated $250,000 in tooling costs. For example, a power switch is unnecessary; just opening the FORTY2 turns it on. The Peppermint team also decided to make the whole device even smaller than intended after carrying the first prototype proved awkward.
Another company, Designs For Hope in Alabama, has developed an inexpensive, durable device that enables rotational energy to be harvested and stored from one of the simplest and most readily available forms of transportation in developing regions worldwide, a bicycle. The device holds a generator on a bike, harvests its power and conditions the electricity for storage in a battery.
The development team began making prototypes on a Dimension 3D Printer from Stratasys, but the initial design had some flaws. After the team 3D printed out its first idea and held it next to a bicycle, they realised it would not work, said Chris Bond, founder of Designs for Hope. After many design iterations and prototypes, made possible using the Dimension 3D Printer, the team finalised the device, and has since worked with missionary networks to place units in the field.
One recipient is a Uganda orphanage whose only power comes from a small solar-panel system. Orphanage workers commute seven to 10 kilometres daily by bike. Once at work, they charge their cell phones from the solar panels, gobbling up limited power. Bond hopes his device alleviates this problem.
“The beautiful thing is, they’re using their bikes anyway,” says Bond. “It’s free energy.”
For more information, visit www.stratasys.com