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.
“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.
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.”