At the beginning of June, i.materialise announced it was hosting a competition, the Wood Challenge, to showcase its newest 3D printing material and the technology that has been developed to provide yet another option for 3D designers. The deadline for submissions was June 14 and, since then, i.materialise has selected five winners.
“Before officially launching a new materials,” read the challenge, “we need to fine-tune production processes, get customer feedback and make sure that your expectations are met.” The company, which has an enormous online presence, provides its customers with broad 3D printing services and options. Currently, when you 3D print a design using i.materialise, you may choose from among 17 different materials, including ceramics and metal–precious metals, too. Customers have over 90 options when it comes to combining materials and finishes. When submitting a file for printing, you can expect to receive instant pricing and file fixing as well as expert technical assistance.
The Wood Challenge was part of a beta testing phase of the new material. Models printed in the wood material are constructed using the additive process from a brown, very fine powder made of wood chips. The 3D-printed object has a rough, granular look and is a light, sandy brown. The surface is slightly porous. The material is not as durable as others such as the metals and thermoplastics, so i.materialise advises customers who opt to use it to restrict designs to objects for display like figurines, architectural scale models, and so forth. That said, they also point out that the wood material is ideal for complex models as “it allows for interlocking and moving parts.”
The 3D printing process is different than the one used to print the thermoplastics like PLA and ABS–basically, melting the filament, running it through the extruder, and adding layer after layer. Instead, selective laser sintering is used to create the wooden objects. While they are still printed in layers, it is a laser that draws thin lines on a bed of the powdered wood material, bonding each new layer with the previous, already solidified layers. After each layer is printed, a fresh layer of the wood powder is spread over the surface by a roller.
The 3D printer used for this process has a print chamber, which is heated to a temperature just under the melting point of the wood powder. The laser beam contributes the necessary heat to melt the powder to solidify the object. When the 3D printing process is completed, the end result is a block of warm wood powder inside of which is the 3D-printed object.
If you’re designing an object to be 3D printed in the wood material, i.materialise recommends that the minimum wall thickness of the object should be 3mm, with minimum details at 1.5mm at the least and 0.5mm clearance. Wall thickness refers, read the guidelines provided by i.materialise, “to the distance between one surface of your model and the opposite sheer surface.” This sounds like a limitation, when in actuality, it provides for greater design freedom in some respects. They explain, “Wall thickness can either provide you with a strong, solid surface or with a flexible and expandable surface.”
When designing an object to be 3D printed in wood by i.materialise recommends that the maximum size of an object is 250 x 250 x 200mm. Hollowed-out models are also more adaptable to this technology. A hollow model helps you avoid deformation and discoloration during the 3D printing process. You do have some options in this regard as you can either hollow out the model and keep the wood powder contained inside or you can design a strategically placed hole or two from which the powder can be removed following the printing process.
Let’s say you’re designing an object to be 3D printed in the wood material that will have moving parts. In that case, i.materialise recommends that you keep a minimum space of 0.4mm between designed surfaces. In fact, the more space the better. “The more complex your design is,” write the experts at i.materialise, “the more complicated it becomes for the powder to exit the empty spaces.” Keep that in mind as you design an object with moving and/or interlocking parts.
What if you’re including lettering or some other surface detailing? That’s great and completely possible, but there are some guidelines to observe in that regard, too. With the 3D printing in wood material process, engraved text or surface details should have an overall height of at least 6mm, with letters of text at a minimum line thickness of 1.5mm and a depth of 1.5mm. Embossed details or text have to be thick enough so that they won’t break while printing.
With all of those parameters in mind, the numerous contestants submitted some impressive designs from among which i.materialise chose the five winners. The first winner (there seems to have been no ranking but, rather, a “top five”) James Novak’s Hexa-Phone Amplifier with its sleek, Scandinavian design aesthetic. It provides an interesting contrast between the materials of the smartphone and the more traditional wood appearance of the 3D printed wood surface.
A second winner was Ferdinand Jahnke’s Wooden Crate, a sort of catch-all for the desktop. The object, says i.materialise, “also shows that 3D-printed wood [can] be used for creating scale models and small-scale reproductions of typical wooden objects.”
The third successful entry was Odette Coutant’s Tree Napkin Ring, a design of stylish simplicity that directly references the basic surface and structure of a tree. Also chosen was Kurt Plagge’s Wood Rack. This particular design with its distinct industrial flair very adeptly demonstrates how the wood material can be used to create objects with interlocking and movable parts.
Finally, the fifth design chosen from among the many entries was the Teeny Tiny Treasure Chest created by Lucas Alousis. It is a small-scale, fully operational version of the life-size object. It required no assembly but, rather, was pretty ingeniously designed by Alousis to capitalize on the 3D printing in wood material process.
All of the winning entries emphasize the capabilities of the 3D printing in wood material process rather than the restrictions, which will likely, at least to some extent, be considered and eliminated whenever possible as i.materialise continues to develop and refine the technology. The Wood Challenge itself emphasizes just how far we’ve come in terms of what’s possible with 3D printing technology and how much further we can look forward to going!