In an increasingly environmentally-conscious world, the global problem of plastic waste is one that requires new and unique solutions.
For Sam Tomkins, working as a Lecturer in Design at the University of Canberra means that he can combine his passion for sustainable design processes with technical applications in the industry.
And, according to Sam, there’s never been a better time to be a designer.
“It could be argued that the design profession’s impact upon society has never been more pronounced,” he says.
“We are seeing certain emerging fields of design that didn’t exist two or three years ago, and pre-existing industries are undergoing rapid and ongoing, transformations.”
His work in UC’s Workshop 7 aims to use a dedicated robotic arm – among other tools – to create new objects exclusively from waste, sourced nearby to where they will be used. Although still in early stages, the process will utilise recyclable materials that would otherwise be discarded and reduce transport emissions from the building process.
“Our multi-disciplinary team from FAD, comprising of Max Maxwell (Architecture) and Ben Claase (Industrial design) have been working to modify an industrial robotic arm to operate effectively, as a really large-scale 3D printer,” Sam says.
“Right now, we are testing our system with plastics that are common to industrial manufacturing, but our prototype aims to remove any restriction on the types of plastics we use, in both quality and quantity.
“As an example, we could transform discarded plastic bottles into outdoor furniture, or construction waste into architectural products.”
The team is well on their way to achieving their goal. They’ve recently teamed up with Spark, an outdoor furniture manufacturer, as an industry partner to explore the possibilities of the technology.
In the meantime, Sam and the team are currently working with students to explore just what ‘Oozzee’ (yes, the robotic arm has a name!) is capable of.
“As this type of technology is somewhat unexplored territory for us, it’s really up to the students to investigate what it can do in that space,” Sam says.
“It’s an exciting time to be a student – we’re constantly aligning the way we teach to current industry practices and challenges, while using the workshop spaces available to us on campus to explore new and emerging aspects of the field.”
A key agenda item for the team is a pilot program at UC, in which the plastic items discarded in recycle bins around the campus can be processed and turned into a 3D printed object on the spot.
“We could take plastic waste, shred it, and immediately print directly from that waste – and it doesn’t need to be shipped anywhere! Think: hyper-localised manufacturing,”
Sam says his background in industrial design equipped him with the tools and perspectives needed to work on a multi-faceted project such as this one.
Following his graduation with a Bachelor’s Degree (Honours) in Industrial and Product Design from UC, Sam undertook some varied freelance projects with his own studio before returning to his alma mater – this time in a tutoring capacity. Quickly proving himself, he moved into a role within Workshop 7, began working on UC-led research projects, and eventually became a lecturer.
His passion to not only work in the industry, but share his knowledge and experiences is clear.
“To be a designer, you have to love the work you’re doing,” he says.
“The design industry is exclusively populated by people who are passionate about what they do.”
His advice for students studying – or thinking about studying – design?
“Accept that it’s challenging – because the answers aren’t necessarily in any textbook, but that is one thing that makes this process of discovery so rewarding,” Sam says.
“If you love the idea of exploring new things, new ideas or new ways of shaping the built environment around us, then it’s the perfect course for you.”
Words by Elly Mackay, photos supplied.