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The Sustainably Crafted Video Birdhouse

Updated: Feb 8

We here at The Peep Show are thrilled that our birdhouse won the prestigious International Red Dot Design Award, but there’s more to our birdhouse than meets the eye. Sure, the obvious aspects of the Peep Show’s modern design have been carefully considered, from the grain of the Western Red Cedar panels to the size of the entrance portal to the color and matte finish of the bioplastic shell. Design excellence aside, however, how it’s fabricated matters to us since the process is as important as the product.


Crafting birdhouses, planting trees

The Peep Show is constructed from Polyterra PLA, a bioplastic from the company Polymaker, that creates filaments for FDM, or Filament Deposition, where an object is built up layer by layer into a predetermined shape. Polymaker also collaborates with OneTreePlanted to…well, plant one tree…for every spool of their filament sold. Polymaker has calculated their carbon impact at 4 kg of CO2 per spool and one full-grown tree absorbs 22kg of CO2 per year, so they are more than covering their cost to the environment by having one tree planted per spool. They also ship their filament wound on recycled paper spools, in minimal packaging with recyclable labels. Polyterra is derived from renewable sources like cornstarch, sugarcane, or potatoes, so it can break down into natural components through microbial action.


Bioplastics are durable. When Steve Gray hatched the idea of a modern video birdhouse in 2002, 3D printing was barely “a thing,” let alone popular. But Steve persisted, honing his design and building prototypes to test the Peep Show concept in extreme climates, from the -40 degrees dry cold of central Alaska to the 95-degree humid heat of Florida’s Gulf Coast. The version you see today is the result of several iterations and feedback from design engineers and ornithologists.


But isn’t bioplastic just plastic?

In a word, no. Plastic and bioplastic are both manufacturing materials, but they differ in their composition, production methods, and environmental impact:


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Traditional Plastic

Bioplastic

Composition

Traditional plastics, also known as petrochemical plastics, are made from fossil fuels like oil or natural gas. They are composed of long chains of polymers derived from these non-renewable resources.

Bioplastics are made from renewable resources such as cornstarch, sugarcane, potatoes, or algae. They can also be synthesized from biomass or other organic materials.

Production

Creation of traditional plastics involves refining crude oil or natural gas to extract the necessary polymers. This process releases greenhouse gases and contributes to pollution.

The production of bioplastics generally involves using renewable resources to create the polymers. This can have a lower carbon footprint compared to traditional plastics.

Impact on the Environment

Traditional plastics are not biodegradable and can persist in the environment for hundreds of years. They contribute to pollution, harm wildlife, and create problems like plastic waste accumulation in oceans and ecosystems.

Many bioplastics are designed to be biodegradable or compostable. This means they can break down naturally in the environment, reducing long-lasting pollution and harm to wildlife. Bioplastics also reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

The use of biologically-based polymers isn’t the only feather in the Peep Show’s cap. Its efficient fabrication process makes sense for today’s environmentally aware backyard birder.


Additive Manufacturing for the Birds

While you may not have heard of additive manufacturing, chances are you have heard of 3D printing and even used products like custom jewelry or smartphone cases created this way. Though the technology has been around since the 1980s, it wasn’t till the 2010s that 3D printing gained attention and momentum.

 

June 29, 2007 Apple sold its first iPhone, a revolutionary product that combined a phone, an iPod and an internet communication device. Smart phones quickly grew in popularity, spawning ancillary industries involving materials, printers and software.“ A rising tide lifts all boats”—demand for the ubiquitous smartphone caused sectors other than personal electronics to burgeon, too. Manufacturing, healthcare, aerospace and consumer goods all benefited from the new digital economy. In time, technologies that allow 3D printing have grown increasingly more accessible, affordable, and widely adopted across various industries and applications, from customized medical implants to orthodontic retainers created from dental impressions.


How else are products fabricated?

To understand the benefits of additive manufacturing, let’s consider the alternatives. In the past, companies used CNC—Computer Numerical Control—machines or, more often, injection molding. CNC machines are electro-mechanical devices that manipulate shop tools according to computer programming inputs. They basically take a chunk of material and remove the excess till all that’s left is the product of interest. Very thin slices of materials can be produced with this form of subtractive manufacturing. Michelangelo was once asked how he sculpted the statue of David. He answered that he “removed everything that wasn’t David.” That’s what CNC machines do.

 

With injection molding, the workhorse of mass production, the product designer would plan and fabricate a mold, calibrate the machine and use certain plastics that can withstand high heat. Traditional injection molding differs from modern additive manufacturing using 3D printing in several distinct ways:

 

  1. Tooling Costs: Injection molding requires the creation of molds, expensive to design and manufacture, since they require hardened steel, aluminum or beryllium-copper. These molds are used to shape the plastic into the desired product. In contrast, 3D printing doesn't involve the same tooling expenses.

  2. Setup Time: Setting up an injection molding process can take a significant amount of time. The molds need to be prepared, the machine needs to be calibrated, and the production process needs to be fine-tuned. 3D printing requires less setup time as the digital design is directly translated into the printed object.

  3. Production Volume: Injection molding becomes cost-effective only for large production volumes. The high initial costs of mold creation are offset by economies of scale. 3D printing is more suitable for smaller production runs, prototypes, or customized items.

  4. Material Waste: Injection molding can produce waste in the form of excess plastic and runners (channels through which molten plastic flows). 3D printing is more material-efficient as it only uses the material necessary to create the object—about 65% less raw material than injection molds.

  5. Design Complexity: Injection molding is better suited for simpler shapes and geometries. Complex designs with undercuts, intricate details, or internal structures can be challenging and costly to mold. 3D printing offers greater design freedom and can more easily handle complex geometries—like egg-shaped birdhouses with custom entrance holes and ridged inner walls.

  6. Material Choices: Injection molding often requires specific plastic materials that can withstand high temperatures and pressures. In 3D printing, a wider range of materials can be used, with more biologically-sourced formulas in development every year.

  7. Lead Times: Injection molding processes can have longer lead times due to mold creation and setup. 3D printing allows for quicker turnaround times, making it more suitable for rapid prototyping and small-batch, customized production.


When a product’s shape is determined digitally rather than mechanically, the whole process ends up more efficient. Bypassing the need for molds, troughs for molten plastic and long lead times, 3D printing saves time and money. It also protects the environment by not generating excess waste plastics that end up in landfills and in our oceans.


What’s this about NASA?

Since 1998, the International Space Station has served as a suborbital base for astronauts to conduct research, eat, sleep and exercise (a lot) to counter the effects of microgravity. Every year resupply missions carry more than 7000 pounds of spare parts to the station 250 miles above the earth. These trips are expensive and time-consuming.


“When you’re orbiting the earth and need a tool, even Amazon Prime can’t help.”

While the ISS is only one destination, it has served as a hub for validating various products and procedures that will inform future missions to the moon and Mars—missions that will require much further travel, making resupply missions extra costly. In the early 2010s NASA partnered with Made in Space, a 3D printing company, to begin the In-Space Manufacturing (ISM) Project, sending the first 3D printer to space in 2014. (https://spaceflightnow.com/2014/11/18/3d-printer-activated-aboard-the-international-space-station/)  Straightaway the team used CAD instructions sent from earth to print a ratcheting socket wrench on board the ISS. Astronauts went on to create other parts as needed—brackets, nozzles, tools, medical devices for monitoring astronauts’ health, and even an air-handling outlet for their oxygen generation system. Not only is 3D printing convenient, but it also saves precious space on board since the crew does not need to store as much equipment they might need at some point.


NASA found that the printing process is not affected by the lack of gravity, and ISS crews have benefited from printing objects as needed. Now space scientists are turning their attention to recycling on-board waste plastics into filaments for their 3D printers to further optimize their use of materials. The time and resource efficiencies of in-space manufacturing have revolutionized how NASA designs, builds, and operates spacecraft and equipment.

 

In summary, we here at the Peep Show use biologically sourced polymers to 3D print video birdhouses—an environmentally friendly addition to a modern garden or classroom. We’re committed to providing backyard birders with this award-winning smart home to treat their feathered friends. Thank you for choosing the Peep Show—the newest roost for nature and technology.



JEAN KIM, M.S.

A freelance writer currently nesting in Merritt Island, Florida, Jean is a mother of four-- including three grown children and a power-lifting teen—and wife to a rocket scientist. With a background in premed and a master’s in pharmacy, Jean is passionate about plant-based and holistic healthcare. Her love for all things sustainable drives her to champion eco-friendly businesses and remediation of the marine estuary literally in her backyard. Jean has a keen eye for innovation, eager to tell stories of socially responsible entrepreneurs who apply modern technologies to solve longstanding problems.


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