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Coverage of the Plastic Fantastic program on DHub

This article about the Plastic Fantastic program as originally published on DHub.

Fusing 3D print technology with indigenous culture in an innovative approach to increase school attendance in the remote community of Milingimbi, North East Arnhem Land, has unleashed Yolngu ingenuity and created a unique way to recycle plastic waste.

With diverse applications spanning medicine, engineering, art, design and the domestic realm, 3D printing is fast proving to be one of the most adaptable and innovative technologies of the 21st century. The impact of this technology has reached North East Arnhem Land where it is allowing Yolngu to design and produce objects, from phone covers to sunglasses and children’s toys, while revolutionising cross-cultural STEM education.

Jacob Djelungee sporting his 3D printed sunglasses and custom designed name tag. Photo by Modfab

Jacob Djelungee sporting his 3D printed sunglasses and custom designed name tag. Photo by Modfab

“I knew it couldn’t be a novelty project, it would need to be devised in such a way that it had longevity as well as being accessible and relevant to Yolngu”, says Lisa Somerville, Community Development and Business Support Specialist with Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA) who spearheaded the project. Somerville had been following 3D printing advancements for some time and knew there would be scope to bring the technology to Arnhem Land. She just needed to wait for the right opportunity.

When ALPA was looking for incentives for the school attendance program all of the elements seemed to come together. Plastic Fantastic is the name given to the project, in which students with 100% school attendance are rewarded by designing and making their own toys, sunglasses and any other conceivable object using 3D printing.

Two main elements were necessary for the program’s longevity. Firstly, Yolngu elders would be trained in the technology and software so that they could teach the students and lead the program. Secondly, they would need to ensure that the materials used for 3D printing would be readily available in the community of Milingimbi, an island approximately 500km East of Darwin. “When I learned about the Filabot machine and realised that we could potentially recycle plastics found around the community it was such an exciting revelation,” says Somerville.

Kantilla’s personalised iPhone cover drawn in CAD software, ready to be printed. Photo by Modfab

Kantilla’s personalised iPhone cover drawn in CAD software, ready to be printed. Photo by Modfab

Enlisting the help of Modfab Pty Ltd, a company dedicated to 3D print education, a cross-cultural training program was devised and necessary technical modifications were made to the Filabot machine enabling it work with the types of plastic available on the island, mainly PBE and HTPE plastics from milk and soft drink bottles. “We created a machine that didn’t exist in the world. Not many people are looking at recycling their materials to use with this technology.”

Plastic bottles are collected from around the community, cleaned and sorted then shredded and fed into the Filabot, where the plastic is heated and squeezed out in spaghetti-like strands. These strands are fed onto a spool of the 3D printer, which then builds up the object drawn in CAD software layer by layer.

According to Somerville, “3D printing is all about drawing, so this fits with Yolngu who have been drawing their inherited designs for tens of thousands of years. The fact that it is a visual process, that participants are drawing and creating a physical object, has made the software very easy to grasp, even for elders who have previously had little to no experience using computers. The visual-spatial way of learning also eliminates language and literacy barriers.”

Improving the kitchen facilities at ALPA in Ramingining. Aaron Warraya and Craig Hanrahan hold their 3D printed pastry cutters, while Caleb Gondarra shows the old jar lid they were previously using. Photo by Modfab

Improving the kitchen facilities at ALPA in Ramingining. Aaron Warraya and Craig Hanrahan

hold their 3D printed pastry cutters, while Caleb Gondarra shows the old jar lid they were previously using. Photo by Modfab

Phone covers, sunglasses, jewellery pendants and children’s toys are among the most popular objects being designed and prototyped by participants, with totems being incorporated wherever possible. Phone covers featuring sharks, stingray and turtle have been an exciting development for Yolngu participants and a way of combining technology and culture. A snake totem pendant that doubles as a headphone cord wrapper was one of the inventive designs that came out of the training.

Lesley Bunbatjiwuy creating his snake totem pendant, which doubles as a headphone wrapper, using CAD software. Photo by Modfab

Lesley Bunbatjiwuy creating his snake totem pendant, which doubles as a headphone wrapper, using CAD software. Photo by Modfab

“3D printing is a multisensory process- you can touch and feel,” says Heike Roberts of Modfab. “What is great about 3D printing is that while there is a lot of STEM learning involved, mathematics in particular, it is cloaked learning. Students are so engaged in making the object that the complex maths becomes tangible. Yolngu have been makers for thousands of years, it comes very naturally to them. This is just a different way of making.”

3D printed boat bung created by Modfab from recycled plastic milk bottles upon requests from the Milingimbi community. They now have access to this custom design pattern to 3D print whenever needed. Photo by Modfab

3D printed boat bung created by Modfab from recycled plastic milk bottles upon requests from the Milingimbi community. They now have access to this custom design pattern to 3D print whenever needed. Photo by Modfab

Living on a remote island means that goods arrive at the local store by barge, which can take weeks for special items. Boat bungs and fishing lures have therefore become popular, practical items that Yolngu are creating using 3D printing technology and recycled plastic. “It is a problem solving machine, and it is also about communication,” says Somerville. “Yolngu have the opportunity to create solutions for problems that we as outsiders to the community would not identify. Simple things that can make their lives easier have now become accessible. That’s the power of this.”

Plastic Fantastic Fabian Ngarrpitjiwuy with Ben Roberts of Modfab. Fabian designed and prototyped his shark totem iPhone cover at ALPA, Ramingining. Photo by Modfab

Fabian Ngarrpitjiwuy with Ben Roberts of Modfab. Fabian designed and prototyped his shark totem iPhone cover at ALPA, Ramingining. Photo by Modfab

Milingimbi has been the pilot site for the project, with expansion into Ramingining underway and plans to take the project to Galiwin’ku. The next stage of the project is to provide more training to Yolngu elders in relation to troubleshooting and machine maintenance so that this can all be done in community. The success and engagement levels of students has also led to 3D printing being incorporated into the local school curriculum, creating units around expression of Yolngu culture through technology. “Indigenous elders being able to lead STEM education in communities through 21st century technology is such an exciting development,” says Roberts “This is made possible through 3D printing”.

Want to know more about Plastic Fantastic or the work Modfab do? Check out our blog now.

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