Local invention excites tech world

People who know Tyler McNaney from his junior high Odyssey of the Mind days might not be surprised to learn the Milton native created an invention that got the attention of an international scientific organization. The World Future Society, which publishes The Futurist magazine, recently selected McNaney to present his newest invention, the Filabot, at […]

The 19-year-old poses with the Filabot in his Milton workshop. (Photo by Jacqueline Cain)

The Filabot is a desktop-sized plastic extruder designed for hobbyists. It uses new or scrap thermoplastic – any plastic that can be melted into a liquid, including milk jugs, five-gallon buckets and grocery bags – to produce thin, stringy filament that can then be used to create myriad useful objects with 3-dimensional printers.

3D printing uses digital files to create solid objects layer-by-layer. The process produces no waste; unlike traditional machining, which cuts a shape out of a block of material, 3D printing uses only what it needs. McNaney explained the process this way:

“It squirts plastic onto the layers it builds up. It goes around in a circle,” he said. “If you were building a mug, you’d start with a few solid layers. Then, when you’re only printing the walls, it prints a donut shape.”

Sound impossible? McNaney’s dad, Jeff, thought so at first, too.

But the process is real and possible at home with a few tools: computer-assisted design (CAD) software, filament and a 3D printer. McNaney got interested in 3D printing while using CAD this past year at Vermont Technical College, but found that plastic filament is expensive, mostly due to 3D printing’s surge in popularity.

The plastic is sold by weight. Five pounds of filament can sell online for up to $80, McNaney said.

McNaney’s Filabot makes use of plastic materials that would otherwise go in the recycle bin. It also helps avid 3D printers use up plastic left over from mistakes in design.

“All they have to do is throw it into the Filabot,” he said.

The world is your Erector set

The Milton Middle School Odyssey of the Mind team made it to the world finals both years McNaney participated, and then-adviser and teacher Tony Burton credits the team’s success to McNaney’s adeptness with machines.

Odyssey of the Mind, an international organization, requires students work together to solve problems with creativity and innovation. Burton recalls McNaney and his friends were especially drawn to technical solutions, as opposed to theatrical or historical, which also have a place in the organization.

McNaney just completed his freshman year studying mechanical engineering at VTC. The 19-year-old has tinkered in his family’s workshop his entire adolescence – including the Odyssey days, when the group met there and was co-advised by McNaney’s father, a general contractor.

The environment provided McNaney the opportunity to get his hands dirty and to learn how things work.

“I always liked building stuff. It’s like the world’s a big Erector set and you just have to put it together,” McNaney said.

He had guidance in the form of his carpenter father, his grandfather, a machinist who lives in Jericho; and an uncle in western N.Y. Over the years, McNaney has invented a variety of things and has also built his own computers and motorized vehicles.

While working toward a computing merit badge as a Boy Scout, young McNaney took apart his mother’s computer to see how it worked – but snapped off a metal pin in the process.

“I had to fix it before she got home. That’s how I got into computers,” he said.

Burton is impressed with the way McNaney follows through with his ideas.

“Most people go through life and might have ideas on how to do something. They’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great?’” he said. “If he has an idea, he wants to get to work on it.”

McNaney’s favorite invention was a tissue-box holder he mounted on the side of his bed, he said.

Then-11-year-old McNaney built a motorized holder that used a hinged arm to pass him a tissue without him needing to get up, he said.

The perfect invention still had a minor flaw, however: “I hooked it up to a really big battery that burnt the motor out. It was smoking on the side of my bed, and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ So that was that,” McNaney said, laughing at the memory.

Besides that – and that one time he and his friends started a small fire while rewiring an Xbox console – McNaney hasn’t had any major calamities result from his tinkering.

Funding the Filabot

McNaney travels home from VTC most weekends. He runs a small business, Rocknail Specialties, repairing handlebars for Segways, so he goes home to fill orders.

Tyler McNaney displays some filament made from recycled grocery bags. (Photo by Jacqueline Cain)

During winter break, when Segway orders were slower, McNaney found himself restless. At school, he delved deeper into 3D printing and used his free time at home to think about making his own filament. Out of sheer boredom, the Filabot was born.

In January, McNaney put his idea on Kickstarter, an online platform that crowd-sources funding for creative projects. He initially set out to raise $10,000 for the project, offering a fully assembled Filabot to anyone who pledged over $490.

He reached the $10,000 goal within the month. Six months later, McNaney has raised more than $32,000 from 156 backers. He knows only one of the people who donated personally, his girlfriend’s mother. He has at least 67 Filabots to make for donors around the globe.

“I’m not afraid that there are so many [to make]; I’m just afraid I’ll never finish this one,” he said, referring to his own machine. He calls it “a constant work in progress.”

As-is, the machine is functional – plastic bits enter a hopper, are heated up and continuously pressurized through a barrel and are finally extruded through a nozzle into long, plastic strings. McNaney eventually wants to add a grinder to crush plastic into pellets and a cooling system.

“Once I have it set, I’ll just have a bunch of parts made and put them all together. It should be simple,” he said.

McNaney sounds confident. Once he fills the initial orders, he plans to make more and sell them for $800 – $1,000.

Through Kickstarter, McNaney has made connections with inventors worldwide. To test his filament, he’s working with a Burlington man who has a 3D printer; McNaney is awaiting his own called a Printrbot, made by another Kickstarter user in California.

He’s also working with a German man who designed an efficient plastic grinder who initially worked on an extruder like McNaney’s but offered to work together when McNaney contacted him.

“We’re really about open-source [development] – getting this out to the public and helping everyone,” he said.

McNaney believes the Filabot could truly help the world.

“You see pictures of third world countries with just mounds of plastic. If they had a 3D printer and a Filabot, they could print roof tiles, cups to drink out of or even to [use to] collect rainwater,” he said.

Others think so, too. The World Future Society contacted McNaney through Filabot’s social media presence to invite him to submit his machine to the BetaLaunch showcase. It was one of 11 inventions selected, out of dozens submitted.

“We’re seeing a lot of energy and interest in Silicon Valley, Washington, D.C. and around the world in 3D printing … but not a lot of practical thinking in the material aspects of it,” said Patrick Tucker, deputy editor of the Futurist magazine and founder of the BetaLaunch showcase. “What Filabot is, in many ways, is a big step forward … It’s on the cutting edge of what is already a cutting edge technology.”

McNaney and Zachary Roberge, a fellow Milton Eagle Scout who’s helped develop Filabot, will present in Toronto this July to the 1,000-plus conference attendees, including venture capitalists and other inventors.

Of course, with his upcoming trip and needing to make at least 67 more Filabots, McNaney won’t spend as much time at his regular summer gig, mowing greens at Arrowhead Golf Course. Tinkering is his job now.

“I like mowing grass,” he said, “but I think this is the next best thing.”

To learn more about McNaney’s Filabot, visit www.filabot.com.