Now You Can Do 3-D Printing Out of Sawdust


From our friends at Fast Company, "bridging the fuzzy border between design and business."

Used to be, if you wanted to make a detailed shape out of wood -- for a nice little fruit bowl, say -- you had to carve it by hand using a big chunk of timber, which is a.) time-consuming b.) expensive and c.) bad for the environment. (Think of all the scraps you end up with.) Now, you can just pull it out of a printer.

The Dutch rapid-prototyping outfit Freedom of Creation (FOC) announced today that it has added wood -- one of the planet's most abundant natural resources -- to its suite of 3-D printing materials. Mind you, this isn't wood resembling anything you might buy at Home Depot. It's sawdust that, when mixed with a "binder" (basically glue), forms something approximating the look of real wood and the strength of MDF. FOC calls it their "Tree-D printer." Cute.

The big selling point here is that it's gentler on Mother Nature than the materials rapid prototyping typically resorts to, like plastics and metals. Sawdust is, after all, a waste product. For the fruit basket shown here, FOC sourced sawdust from local wood workshops that would've tossed the stuff otherwise. As FOC's Brian Garrett tells Co.Design: "It was a good deal since this way they also got their workshops cleaned for free."

There are limitations. Though the products do look "woody," they don't quite replicate the original wood, owing to discoloration that results when the binder hardens. What's more, FOC can only print in teak and mahogany. Garrett explains: "Balsa and other light wood types have not been possible yet, because they are so light that spreading equal layers is still a problem. We are currently working on improving this with using different types of re-coaters."

Still it's a promising development in the field of 3-D printing, which bills itself as a paragon of sustainability but, as industry insiders tell it, hasn't always lived up to the hype. FOC seems particularly excited about the formal and aesthetic possibilities "Tree-D" printing affords designers. "There is no wood carver on earth who could possibly make such complex things and especially with this kind of fine detail," Garrett says. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration.

By Suzanne LaBarre at Fast Company

Tags: Downloadable Design

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