October 1, 2022

3D printed wooden furniture could be shipped flat and self-assembled at home

The ability to drastically change your form is hailed in the pages of comics and movies as one of the primary superpowers. The Pontoon (now streaming on Paon!) succeeds through a combination of exposure to gamma radiation—despite the fact that gamma radiation doesn’t work that way—and uncontrolled anger.

Of course, nature has its own set of awesome transformations. All organisms change over time, either through the ordinary process of growth or through incredible and complex metamorphoses, but some change more than others. We often think of trees as stoic and mostly unchanging, at least for short periods of time. They stand purposefully in our forests, swaying gently in the breeze, but their stiff bodies don’t offer much in the way of transition, do they? Not so fast.

The morphology of wood is such that it has the ability to drastically change shape, especially after it dies. Anyone who has left an untreated piece of wood outside for too long has probably seen the way it warps after the moisture evaporates. Generally this is bad news for anyone hoping to use this wood in a project, but the natural warping characteristics of the wood are inspiring a new type of craftsmanship.

Doron Kam, a PhD student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and his colleagues have developed a method to reproduce the natural warping of wood in a more controlled setting using 3D printing. Their process results in complex shapes, including saddles and propellers, and could pave the way for the future of furniture manufacturing and shipping. Their results were presented at a recent meeting of the American Chemical Society.

“When you chop down a tree, the water evaporates, but because of the way the cells are lined up, you have an uneven decrease in volume. You are deformed. We thought of doing the same with 3D printing,” Kam told SYFY WIRE.

The researchers took particles of wood waste, known as wood flour, and combined them with binders to create a printable wood ink suitable for 3D printers. Such ink can be produced by cutting down trees and grinding them up, but it can also be produced from already existing waste like broken furniture or even the cotton fibers from old clothes. This material offers an alternative to plastics which are highly controllable and durable, but not as durable.

In living trees, warping comes from the loss of moisture as the wood dries and the uneven way its fibers lose moisture over time. Scientists replicate this process through moisture in the printing material. Once a flat shape is dropped onto the build plate, it begins to lose moisture and the fibers inside the wood ink deform according to their orientation.

“We use extrusion 3D printing which typically uses plastic filaments and produces plastic waste. The concept is really similar. We adjust the print speed, the flow of the material, to make them more or less aligned, which results in a different curvature when it dries,” Kam said.

By laying lines of wood filaments at different speeds next to each other, or in layers on top of each other, researchers can control the types of curvature the object reaches once it has dried. So far they’ve created relatively simple shapes as a proof of concept, but almost any shape could hypothetically be achieved with the right combination of speeds, orientations, and layers.

“We don’t have full control of the forces yet, but we have a very good understanding of the mechanisms at work. As we move forward, the industry could go in many directions,” Kam said.

How and when the printed object deforms into its permanent configuration is related to the rate at which it loses moisture. This means that in the future, it may be possible to print furniture at a manufacturing site, ship it flat while it still retains moisture, and then install it at home. You could hypothetically set up your new flat chair in your living room or kitchen, go to work, and come home with a finished product that came together through the power of physics while you were away.

Today, once a form has been obtained, it cannot be reversed, but this may change in the future. Researchers are investigating ways to reintroduce moisture and reverse the process. If they can do that, it would certainly make packing and moving much easier.

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