Inside a workshop near Boston, a six-foot-long 3D printer is churning out furniture that looks indistinguishable from wood, built layer by layer from sawdust that otherwise would have been wasted.
“We’re preventing trees from being cut down,” says Andy Jeffrey, CEO of Forust, the startup that created the printer, which is the winner of the art and design category of Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards. In the U.S. alone, he says, nearly 100 million tons of sawdust is generated each year, the equivalent of 30 to 40 million trees. Much of that sawdust is either incinerated or sent to landfills.
The giant 3D printer spreads out thin layers of sawdust, and each layer is topped with an environmentally friendly binder that includes lignin, an adhesive material that comes from trees and naturally helps hold together wood. Sawdust from any type of tree can be transformed by the printer into wood that looks like a specific species.
By varying the density of the sawdust—a little like the way a regular printer can print in grayscale by varying the density of black ink—the printer can also recreate wood grain like oak or teak or even endangered species like rosewood. And because it’s printed in layers, the grain goes all the way through each object, unlike particle board.
“This isn’t just an image which is applied to the surface of the wood—it is a property that goes completely through the wood,” says Jeffrey. “Every layer has that grain . . . you can refinish it, sand it down, put another lacquer onto the wood and you won’t lose the grain effect. It’s intrinsic to the whole piece.”
Because the process can sculpt an object as it prints, it’s possible to design pieces that are more intricate than could easily be made with traditional carving. The company is now producing a variety of products, from sculptural bowls to car parts, and redesigning others, like golf tees with an easier-to-use shape that couldn’t be made through traditional manufacturing.
Since sawdust is widely available around the planet—along with other wood waste like materials from construction sites—the printers could be used anywhere and help eliminate supply chain challenges that exist for wood now. “It doesn’t make sense to actually ship sawdust around the world,” he says.”The type of manufacturing we envisage is a more distributed manufacturing model where you’re not reliant on massive supply chains to ship sawdust to a big central location, and then ship products all around the world.”