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This 3D printing system converts waste sawdust into stunning wooden lamps and guitars

Desktop Metal's sawdust-printing outfit allows individual designers and large manufacturers to print elaborate wooden objects.
Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributing Writer on
A lit wooden lamp hanging from the ceiling

HagenHinderdael's 'Cocoon' lamp was made using Forust's 3D-printing technology that converts sawdust to any kind of wood with grain.

Image: HagenHinderdael

HagenHinderdael, a London-based firm that works at the intersection of sustainable design, architecture and innovative technology cannot sell enough of its $2,160 lamps dubbed the 'Cocoon'. Firm co-founder Sofia Hagen says that they've been disappearing as quickly as they have arrived on to the shelves of global design shops such as Hoettges Windows in Vienna and Minotti in London, as well as the company's own pop-up store in Piccadilly Arcade.

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The lamp could easily be a mid-century-modern showpiece, painstakingly hollowed out of a block of expensive hardwood, perhaps mahogany or teak, with a marble-like finish and hand-crafted to polished perfection.

Except, it isn't. Not only is the lamp not made out of premium wood, its raw material lies on the other side of lumber's quality spectrum, the lowliest-of-low by-products that remains one of the biggest environmental scourges around, namely sawdust. HagenHinderdael sent Forust -- acquired by 3D printing supremo Desktop Metal in 2019 -- its rendering of the lamp and Forust then used sawdust and a binder-jet printer to print it out.

a wooden lamp placed on a counter

The Cocoon has proven to be wildly popular across design shops in Europe.

Image: HagenHinderdael

3D manufacturing magic

There's nothing mysterious about 3D printing today, as you may know, with all manner of powdered material -- from ceramic to metal to sand -- being fashioned into objects of surprising shapes, resilience, and physical integrity. The technology has also had, in a short space of time, not just an impact on industrial manufacturing, but also on supply chains. 

Also: These are the most googled 3D printing questions of 2022, answered

But 3D printing has never been hugely successful with wood before, until now. Forust was formed when Andrew Jeffery, previously president of Boston Ceramics, Virginia San Fratello at the Department of Design at San Jose State University, and Ronald Rael, with the Department of Architecture at the University of California Berkeley, came together and started tinkering around with materials as fellow members of the San Francisco-based 3D collective, Emerging Objects. The collective has produced stunning pieces of functional art through experimentation with improbable materials, such as salt and recycled tires.

A large mound of sawdust is being lifted up by a machine

86 million tons of sawdust is produced annually by the milling and furniture industries, with most of it polluting the environment.

Image: Forust

It was only a matter of time before the trio focused on finding a solution to an as-yet, intractable 3D conundrum -- how to print wooden objects. Their primary impulse was to package that approach in a sustainable solution. Consequently, Forust's commercial 3D printing solution aims to mitigate at least a small part of the 84 million tons of sawdust generated by the furniture industry that is either burned or sits on landfill. 

How it works

If you are an individual or a small firm with a product idea, you can always contact Forust to investigate a partnership where you send the company a CAD-like rendering of your design towards a decided-upon print run. However, if you are a larger manufacturer, you can buy the printing solution outright.

This solution is called the Shop System Forust Edition, which has now gone on sale with a sticker price of $300,000. It consists of a binder jet 3D printer with a build box of 13.8 x 8.7 x 7.9 inches and a print speed of up to 1,600 cc/hr. Forust also provides unfinished maple or oak waste sawdust from the wood milling and furniture industries where bigger chunks have already been sieved from the finer powder that it requires. In the build box, an inkjet print head drops a water-based binder onto the surface of the sawdust and the two substances meld into each other.

A man standing in front of a large metal box which is a 3D pinter

The Shop System Forust Edition 3D printer at work.

Image: Forust

The printhead simultaneously injects a water-based ink that mimics practically any wood grain you would want, including rosewood, zebrano, ebony and mahogany, among others. Deposits of the binder and injection of the ink is done layer by layer, as per the contours of the rendering dictated by the 3D software. 

The print head can build up to a height of ⅘ of an inch per hour (called 'Z height' in 3d printing parlance) until it reaches the finished level (and shape). Waste sawdust in the box is then collected for the next project while the whole piece is suffused with a non-toxic, bio-epoxy resin to give it strength. These 3D-printed wood parts function like regular wood ones -- they can be sanded, stained, polished, dyed, coated, and refinished, and can also accommodate screws and nails.

The arm of a 3D printer in white working on a layer of sawdust

Forust's 3D print head can build up to a height of ⅘ of an inch.

Image: Forust

What this could mean for you

Desktop Metal is banking on how easy it will be for a wide array of manufacturers to shift from polymers and plastics to sustainable wood parts. 

"Customers want to now print parts in-house and leverage their own waste streams," explains Arjun Aggarwal, head of corporate development at the company, who sees many industry segments ripe for Forust's solution. They include home decor, lighting, toys, kitchen utensils, automotive interiors (especially in luxury brands), and architectural and design paneling, to name just a few. Those looking to match the broken leg or panel of an heirloom could simply print out a part and nobody would know the difference.

The embodiment of the possibilities ahead for individual creators is illustrated by the unique, bespoke 3D-printed guitars that Olaf Diegel, head of the Creative Design and Additive Manufacturing Lab at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, enjoys producing. Having primarily used metal powders and selective laser sintering (SLS) for his guitars, Diegel heard of Forust's sawdust-consuming printer and decided to try it out by sending the US-based company a CAD design of a guitar. 

Diegel said the 3D-printed version cost $540 versus $1,000 to $2,000 for a similar, custom build. That price will only fall as the technology ramps up.

3d-guitar

Olaf Diegel's 3D-printed, sawdust-based, wooden guitar, which uses Forust's technology.

Image: Desktop Metal

Measuring sustainability

However beautiful and convenient these printed products are, though, the main thrust behind Desktop Metal's new business proposition -- and one would argue, future success -- is its ambition to be a sustainable option. ZDNET has asked for more details of the overall carbon footprint of using the technology. 

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And certainly many are hailing 3D printing as inherently more democratising, less wasteful and more efficient all across the value chain of a product -- thanks to a distributed (or localised) model of production that Desktop Metal is advocating with their Shop System. Printing goods on-demand is a lot better than watching unsold items sit in the shop. 

Square wood samples with grain with 'FORUST' printed on them

Forust's samples with wood-specific grain formed by a water-based dye that is injected layer-by-layer into the object being printed.

Image: Forust

Binder jet printing does not use large amounts of heat like the more common 3D laser sintering of metal and, therefore, is much easier on the environment. Also, additive processes don't waste as much material compared to subtractive ones. When the technology becomes more affordable and portable, design chops along with 3D modeling and material science experience may become the next, evolutionary version of a skilled leatherworker or jeweller.

Most crucially, Forust could influence a culture of sustainable manufacturing that is beginning to take root. "We can do pretty shapes but these days if you make something new, it should at least not cause any more damage than you are already causing the world," Sofia Hagen of HagenHinderdael tells ZDNet. "The only way to justify creating and making new pieces is to re-purpose what is already there."

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