Is Desktop Metal (NYSE: DM) aiming for the most diverse portfolio of 3D printing technologies on the market? The company has made another acquisition that adds wood 3D printing to its mix, which already includes metal binder jetting, bound metal deposition, digital light processing for polymers, carbon fiber deposition, and bioprinting.
Coinciding with AMUG, Desktop Metal announced the launch of Forust, a binder jetting process for 3D printing waste byproducts, cellulose dust and lignin, from wood production and paper manufacturing. Geometries possible with the Forust process cannot be achieved with subtractive processes and may be more sustainable as well. At least, that’s what sustainable designer and developer William McDonough seems to believe:
“The Forust technology allows us to take something that was previously wood waste and re-materialize it into exquisitely beautiful and useful things. We are honoring the cellulose and lignin of the trees by rearticulating them into assets for present and future generations. By allowing millions of trees to remain in place in their forests, Forust is launching a highly evolved technology for the circular technosphere that supports and celebrates stewardship of the natural, regenerative, and diverse biosphere, making it not only smart, but wise. This is a historic and material opportunity in the history of design and the making of things that reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous quote, ‘Any technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.’ As a lover of wood and forests, I find Forust indistinguishable from magic. The 3D printing of wood using waste natural materials is a gamechanger. We have only begun to explore its beneficial potentials, but it is clear they are immense,” McDonough said. This lends a good deal of credibility to the Forust practice, given the architect’s development of the “Cradle to Cradle” concept of production.
The technology was developed through an acquisition of a startup with the same name launched by former members of the San Francisco-based Emerging Objects, Virginia San Fratello, Chair of the Department of Design at San Jose State University, and Ronald Rael, Professor and Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of California Berkeley. Whereas Emerging Objects developed a number of unique material process 3D printed with binder jet, such as salt and recycled tires, FORUST was focused on wood and paper.
In addition to the Emerging Objects crew is Andrew Jeffery, who previously served as President of Boston Ceramics and, before that, Director of Ceramic Products at 3D Systems. At 3D Systems, he was meant to bring the company’s CeraJet printer to market, which offered the possibility of custom ceramics 3D printing. Altogether, the Forust team has developed some of the most interesting materials and processes in the 3D printing industry.
“The inspiration for Forust was to begin with sawdust and end with forests,” said Jeffery. “Our process is based on extensive research conducted over the past decade in the field of hardwood lumber, leading to complex and elegant finished structures. Through advanced CAD software, proprietary materials and Desktop Metal binder jetting mass production platforms, we can now manufacture beautiful, functional and innovative wood products for a variety of architectural, interior, and home goods applications from upcycled wood byproducts.”
Naturally, it seems as though Desktop Metal didn’t want to see a good thing go to waste, purchasing the startup and launching the Forust process. Binder jetting with sawdust and lignin can be performed on Desktop Metal’s Shop System or the new RAM 336 3D printer, which can manufacture parts up to two cubic meters in volume at speeds of over 100 liters per hour. The process relies on spreading out layers of treated sawdust before depositing a non-toxic, biodegradable binder.
A “digital grain” is printed on every layer, with the company saying, “Software has the ability to digitally reproduce nearly any wood grain, including rosewood, ash, zebrano, ebony and mahogany, among others. Parts will also support a variety of wood stains at launch, including natural, oak, ash, and walnut.”
Moreover, the resulting wood parts are described as isotropic and high strength. Though natural wood is definitely strong, its one potential weakness is a lack of isotropic strength. How it compares to 3D printed wood parts we don’t yet know. We do know that Forust components can be sanded, stained, polished, dyed, coated and refinished in the same way as traditionally made wood items.
Unlike traditionally made wooden parts, Forust parts can be made with uniquely complex geometries, due to the fact that binder jetting doesn’t require the production of support materials. One can only imagine the types of recreations of antique furniture from the Palace of Versailles the technology could produce.
“Forust offers nearly unlimited design flexibility,” said Jeffery. “From exotic grain structures to grainless wood, we can digitally reproduce wood textures and a myriad of grain types. And, because they are made from a wood and bioresin compound, these parts exhibit the functionality and stiffness in line with conventional wood. Our finished pieces are indistinguishable from traditionally manufactured wood products you would find in a store. The additive manufacturing process literally becomes invisible.”
Given that the global finished wood products market is expected to reach $1.8 trillion by 2027, this obviously means big things for both Desktop Metal and the 3D printing industry. Until now, wood 3D printing has been minimal in scale, with only FORUST and Emerging Objects really demonstrating its potential. Otherwise, 3D printing with wood scraps has been limited to desktop extrusion using the variety of filaments on the market, including the fellow who started it all with Wood-LAY, Kai Parthy.
Now, it seems quite feasible that any number of wood crafting businesses could potentially jump into 3D printing, producing unique architectural elements, furniture pieces, luxury goods, home goods and more. This is a whole new world that was previously untapped by additive manufacturing. Think cabinets, vehicle shifter knobs, wood inlays, tables, oars and more. Ric Fulop, Founder and CEO of Desktop Metal, suggested that the company is already thinking of applications that probably don’t readily come to mind, including wood replacements for plastic parts:
“Applications for Forust’s wood parts are really limitless,” Fulop said. “There are many applications where polymers and plastics are used today where you can now cost-effectively replace with sustainably manufactured wood parts – luxurious, high-end components in interiors, consumer electronics, instruments, aviation, boats, home goods and eventually in flooring and exterior roofing applications. For the first time, we can produce beautiful parts with the same durability and characteristics you would have in traditionally manufactured wood, but printed using upcycled materials which does not require cutting down or harvesting trees. With Forust, we have the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on sustainability, climate change and waste issues that we as a humanity have brought to the planet. For each tree saved, we are reducing the carbon footprint by a metric ton over its lifetime.”
The company has already begun selling home goods 3D printed using the Forust process, beginning with industrial designer Yves Béhar. These include a vessel, tray, basket and bowl. Manufacturers and designers can order samples from the company, submitting their own designs, or they can begin working on high-volume partnerships.
“We want to make it easy for designers to explore complex new geometries for a wide variety of products and applications using an age-old material,” said Jeffery. “At the end of the wood product’s life, we would like to see customers have two choices – dispose of it and it will biodegrade over time as any wood product would, or shred it and repurpose the material into future parts through Forust. Our vision is a true circular manufacturing process.”
Of course, this technology has a number of ecological benefits. 3D printing alone opens the opportunity to use virtual inventory, producing goods on demand rather than in bulk and seeing non-purchased items go to waste. The future of distributed production may make production near the point of use a grater possibility. Additive processes also waste fewer materials than subtractive ones.
On top of that, the ability to 3D print with byproducts from paper and wood production obviously sees waste further reduced and the resulting wood components will have a less negative impact on the environment if and when they are disposed. This sort of thinking is crucial to a circular economy. And, if wood can be used to replace toxic polymers, then that’s even better.
However, it’s also important to remember that this is not entirely an ecologically focused endeavor. Desktop Metal’s inclusion of the revenue expected from the finished wood products market in its press release demonstrates that it also has an eye for the profits that could be garnered from tapping this segment. In this way, the company demonstrates the futility of Jevons paradox.
For gains made in efficiency, more resources may be diverted elsewhere. Offsetting the waste from the wood and paper makers may cause a rise in energy use from 3D printing, for example. Or maybe the paradox will occur at a more general level: by filling in a niche for 3D printed, custom wood items, it creates another manufacturing segment that drives further economic growth, which causes more consumption and production, thus consuming more resources all around. Additionally, we can’t forget that Desktop Metal already offers polymer and metal 3D printing technologies that may negate the impacts of its wood printing segment.
It would be difficult to fault this particular company or initiative for that state of affairs, however, as that is a global, systemic problem. The Forust team is obviously doing its best to work within the framework for that system and coming up with what it considers a sustainable solution. Regardless of the potential impacts on the economy or ecosystem, the immediate impacts on 3D printing are profound. And now I’m wondering, will Desktop Metal start 3D printing salt and recycled rubber as well?
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