Home Industry People Interviews 3D printing, an interview with Trevor Stuthridge

3D printing, an interview with Trevor Stuthridge

Paper Advance (PA): 3D printing is a hot topic. The field of additive manufacturing has opened an array of new opportunities for a host of different materials, including cellulosic biomaterials. Participants in the FPInnovations at BIOFOR 2017 one-day workshop on 3D printing heard about this first hand as they learned about a host of development projects, some of which are at the conception stage, others that are ready to move to market in the near future. The potential is indisputable, but could you elaborate on the current status of 3D printing? Would you characterize it as being in its infancy, or has it moved to an 'early youth' stage?

Trevor Stuthridge (TS): 3D printing technologies have been used for about 30 years, but this was mostly limited to prototyping applications by companies that could afford the high equipment and consumable costs. The 3D printing market has been experiencing a rapid growth in recent years because some of the earlier patents started to expire around 2006. This has led to an explosive growth of low-cost printers, new printing materials, and an emerging movement of "makers" who are bringing a wealth of new ideas for applications.
At the same time, advances in computing, 3D scanning, digital design and fabrication are also supporting the development of 3D printing and additive manufacturing. Indeed, the global market for 3D printing was $5 B in 2015 with a CAGR of 26%. Beyond prototyping, 3D printing has so far been successfully applied for niche products in the medical industry and the aerospace industry to fulfil the needs of customization and optimization.
Significant investments are being made to address the challenges of using 3D printing as a manufacturing platform and the introduction of new applications will accelerate in the coming years as solutions are found.
Certainly, wood-based 3D printing is in its infancy. The keyword 'wood filaments' only appeared on Google trends from 2013. So the value proposition for the forest industry is yet to be fully defined, but our industry can certainly piggyback from what is happening in other sectors. Facilitating this opportunity in Canada is certainly a role for FPInnovations.

PA: Using the analogy of an apple orchard, where some apples are easy to grab, whereas others are impossible to reach without a ladder, what are some low-hanging fruit when it comes to 3D printing of feedstock, where cellulosic material is an ingredient? Which ones are realistically achievable in the medium term?

TS: Incorporating wood materials (wood flour, lignin, fibres and other biomaterials) into plastic filaments for fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printing (the low cost printers for hobbyists and classrooms are mainly based on FDM technology) is already happening commercially. This is a market that people can already relate to, but the total use of wood materials remains small.
We see more potential in the medium term for technologies that would enable the use of wood-based materials as the major component of the final objects and structures. Medium-term applications will likely be in the medical field and in architectural (non-load-bearing) wood products and furniture.

PA: The workshop showcased a range of advanced 3D printed applications, though most of them were very small in size and their potential number. Where can we expect to find volume applications that rely on cellulose as feedstock?

TS: Customized wood structures (e.g. furniture, interior decoration, building components) would be higher volume applications. These kinds of applications need the development of new wood-containing feedstocks and printing systems. Some of the printing systems could be similar to what is already being used to 3D-print concrete.

PA: When it comes to feedstock for 3D printing, most of it is made plastic, with a small but increasing proportion of cellulosic material. Will 3D printing ever be a volume business for the forest industry? If so, for which applications?

TS: As was discussed at the Workshop, the better-known and most widespread technologies use plastics, but there are other technologies that could enable large volume applications with wood-based materials as the main component, such as mass-customized furniture, 3D shape packages, functional absorbent products, etc. For example, APP China has already filed a few patent applications for producing customized packaging by 3D printing cellulosic materials.

PA: If we assume that for the foreseeable future 3D printing requirements will be based on limited volumes of cellulosic feedstock, but in depth research and knowledge on behalf of the supplier, can we anticipate demand to come from small specialty mills, bigger firms, or both?

TS: The long term target for wood-based 3D printing is not to provide wood-containing feedstock for taking a small share of the 3D printing materials market, but to use 3D printing as manufacturing tool for mass customized wood and fibre-based products. 3D printing comes with the inherent concepts of distributed manufacturing or producing closer to the customer. In a manner similar to the wood products industry, one could imagine having several specialized production facilities operating independently or under the banner of a larger group.

PA: Is there anything of particular interest you'd like to note on the theme of cellulosic 3D printing?

TS: From raw materials to end products, wood-based 3D printing/additive manufacturing creates a new way for designing, manufacturing and using wood and fibre-based products.
There is an array of new exciting materials being introduced by our industry and it is important to work with creative people, such as architects and industrial designers, who can incorporate this next generation of wood-based materials into everyday objects and buildings. They have barely started to take advantage of the increased design possibilities offered by 3D printing.
From an innovation perspective, additive manufacturing development requires interdisciplinary inputs, so increased collaboration across different organizations and fields of expertise could speed up the development and market adoption.

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