For the folks at Forust, there are a whole lot of benefits to the mass-production 3D printing process they’ve developed that they say can produce economically competitive products that look like real wood: a reduction of the need to cut down trees; a new use for a waste stream that’s often landfilled or burned; a superior product with uniform strength; and reductions in carbon emissions, to name a few.
“We’re producing interior design products sustainably,” said Andy Jeffery, Forust’s CEO. “We’re using discarded materials to produce beautiful, upscale materials using upcycled sawdust and lignin. They sand and finish just like wood, and we can vary the density to mimic different wood densities. We provide beautiful, functional parts that don’t hurt the environment.”
Jeffery’s roots in 3D printing go back to its founding. “I started in 3D printing in the early ’90s,” he said. “I heard about the MIT process, binder jetting, which inspired me to found my first company.” That firm, Specific Surface Corporation, used 3D printing to produce advanced filters for particulate removal from coal combustion and diesel exhaust. “Ever since the beginning, I’ve seen 3D printing as a manufacturing process, not a prototyping one. Every company I’ve founded has been aimed at large-scale production.” Forust continues in that vein. “One advantage we have is our ability to scale with our robotic system, our ability to do mass production and mass customization.”
Jeffery teamed up with co-founders Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael to launch Forust. “Virginia is Chair of the Department of Design at San Jose State University,” Jeffery said. “And Ron is Professor of Architecture at UC Berkeley. We’ve collaborated in the past, and they were both interested in 3D printing with wood. They’ve provided plenty of creative impetus, and helped us to connect with potential customers–architects, designers, and other experts.”
Forust’s printing process is that same one, binder jetting, that Jeffery first encountered at MIT nearly 30 years ago, in which thin material layers are printed along with a binding agent that holds them together. In Forust’s process, the main material is sawdust. “We sieve and air classify the sawdust to get uniformity, a consistent particle size,” he said. “We add non-plant-based organics to glue it all together. Then once the parts are formed, we infuse them with epoxy resin.”
One aspect of the process that contributes to the genuine appearance of the finished products is the ability to recreate the look various different wood grains. “That came in response to an auto company that connected with me,” explained Jeffery. “They asked if we could put the image of the wood part they wanted on our part. The lights went off in my head, to make our parts look like any kind of wood. We randomize the color layers during our build using an algorithm we developed. Colored ink is randomly jetted during the print, which means the ‘grain’ runs all the way through the part, unlike laminated materials. We’re working on software improvements to vary the grain direction and build in features like knots.”
The company is also aiming at products with strength superior to real wood. “Our parts have isotropic properties,” said Jeffery, referring to their consistent properties throughout. “Wood breaks along the grain. We have uniform strength across the part.”
Forust has a growing online store with finished products available for purchase, such as designer bowls and trays from Yves Béhar and fuseproject, as well as swatch sets showing different material appearances they’re able to create. Customers can also submit their own custom designs directly on the website for printing. Forust can create parts from virtually any application where wood parts are used–from everyday home goods and furniture to high-end automotive or architectural detailing. They offer two different machine options: the high-speed single-pass Desktop Metal Shop System for low-volume batch production, and the aforementioned robot-based large-format single-pass printer aimed at high-throughput mass production. “We think we can compete against conventional wood products with our large format machine,” Jeffery said.
Desktop Metal is a believer. In October 2020, they quietly acquired Forust, which had been founded just a year earlier in October 2019, for $2.5 million. The companies publicly announced the deal this past May, after the dust had settled on Desktop Metal’s finalizing of its $2.5 billion deal to go public via SPAC last December.
As Forust ramps up for full commercialization, it’s also continuing its process development. “We’re looking at other material sources, like bamboo and agricultural waste,” said Jeffery. “We want to make objects with a great appearance that prevent carbon emissions and reduce the landfilling of wood waste. We want to reduce the number of trees that are cut down.”
He sees a final advantage as well. “Our process enables someone with zero woodworking experience to make beautiful wood pieces,” he said. “It opens up wood and woodworking to a whole range of people who might otherwise not have considered that.”
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