Organic plastic adds a new dimension to innovation in city supplies

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The path to Wat(t)er FabLab took shape, like so many innovation projects, from the need to respond to two scenarios: the frequent theft of water supply covers in the city and the desire to put plastic waste left over from building works to good use. So were born, or rather printed, the first pieces that today make Águas e Energia do Porto's work faster, less expensive and increasingly environmentally friendly.

The idea dates back to 2020 and the 'attempts to reuse recycled material to make the mould for the so-called movable ceilings' of the supply channels, 'small metal covers that, given their value, end up being stolen', the municipal company's innovation coordinator explains.

However, Moisés Neves admits that this process turned out to be 'very manual and unreliable', besides the fact that 'it's expensive to produce the covers in that plastic'. Even so, one part had been achieved: the purchase of a 3D printer 'to make the prototypes and design the mould'.

The accessories that came out of it passed all the stress tests and, the coordinator adds, proved to be 'much more economical than the metal version, their production is completely automated, and therefore requires no or very little manual labour'.

Once the viability of the solution was confirmed, Águas e Energia do Porto bought more machines - 12 already - with an idea in mind: To start printing those covers, but this time using PLA, a polylactic acid obtained from renewable resources which, because it is of plant origin, is absolutely safe to be in contact with drinking water.

'The truth is that the company's needs began to raise the question 'what about making this part?', 'what about making that one?', and then some souvenirs and tools, and so the need grew', Moisés Neves says, revealing that, currently, 'you can find more than eight thousand parts applied in Porto's [water supply] infrastructure'.

The coordinator says, without a doubt, that 'one of the great advantages of 3D printing is that we produce on the spot. If I need a movable roof, it'll be ready in two hours'. With a 'very high reaction capacity, even for other solutions that don't exist on the market', the team can 'produce 20 parts overnight'.

It also reduces the need to stock in warehouses, another high cost for the company. 'We just buy the raw materials and print them as needed', Moisés Neves says.

And because the possibilities are endless, a new three-dimensional challenge came up at the end of last year: the construction of a model of the city to foresee the behaviour of rainwater drainage. It has 78 pieces, 8.7 kilos of bioplastic and over 890 hours of printing to help improve the urban water cycle.

'There are many solutions and we keep discovering more and more', the coordinator said. The next step, already in the final testing phase to ensure they can withstand the weight of cars, will be larger accessories such as fire hydrant covers. And as much more as necessary, because the 14,000 or so parts already printed and the more than 33 models designed in-house are not the limit of Wat(t)er FabLab.