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Photo: Ronald Helgers

Disaster relief and furniture manufacturing – 3D printing using local materials offers enormous opportunities

Imagine the possibilities of an object manufactured from waste materials from the timber industry, fully biodegradable and produced in a 3D printer. The same material can be used to produce a vase one day and a table the next, or why not a house in a disaster zone?

RISE has 3D-printed a highly unusual vase; the first large-scale printed object that is completely biodegradable. While we have previously been able to print both large objects and biodegradable ones, it has not previously been possible to combine the two. RISE has collaborated with WASP. the Italian manufacturer of the 3D printer used in the project. WASP has 14 hubs around the world at which they experiment with local, recyclable materials that can be used in 3D printers. One of these hubs is at RISE in Umeå and is managed by Ambra Trotto.

Byproducts take centre stage

The vase is manufactured from 85% wood flour, a byproduct of the timber industry. Whenever planks, timber buildings, wooden furniture and paper products are manufactured, a large quantity of byproducts are produced, including wood flour.

“Today, these byproducts are often used to produce energy when they could actually be put to much better use,” says Dina Dedic, senior research associate at RISE.

The hope is that the technology can be further developed to use other wood components that are currently underutilised, for example branches, roots and pine needles.

Fully biodegradable

Wood flour is a completely natural, fully biodegradable product and any additional materials added to it are also wholly bio-based and biodegradable. This means that the printed product is also fully biodegradable. Previously, materials used to print large-scale objects have generally been mixed with large amounts of oil-based polymeric binders; in other words, plastics.

Combined advantages

There are a number of advantages to 3D printing as a method of manufacture. Objects can be quickly manufactured without the need for templates and moulds. It is highly adaptable as well as producing minimal waste and spills. When combined with biodegradable, locally sourced waste materials, the technique offers enormous environmental gains.

“We have high hopes that this type of material can be circulated relatively easily. When broken down, the material can be fed into the 3D printer again to produce a new product with a different design. The dream scenario is that you can have a chair one day, a vase on another and a table on the third,” says Dina Dedic.

3D printed houses are the ultimate goal

The aim is to minimise transportation by building and manufacturing new houses from materials available solely in the immediate vicinity. In this way one could rapidly build-up a community in disaster zone using locally available materials; for example, WASP’s Gaia 3D-printed earth house.

“This concept could then be developed to provide more permanent homes. 3D printers offer enormous freedom in terms of designing an object; it need not be square and composed of the kind of building elements we use today,” says Dina Dedic.

The closely related Vinnova-financed WouldWood 2 project, led by RISE senior scientist Mikael Lindström, is looking into exactly how the architectural design process is affected by 3D printing processes. The aim is to print large-scale building elements in bio-based materials with a high wood content.

Published: 2019-01-04