Move over, IKEA. Furniture of the future could arrive flat and then self-assemble into a 3D shape

A DNA-like helix made from wood-like ink that started completely flat. Credit: Doron Kam.

Wood is a very malleable yet durable material, which humans have used since someone first tied two branches together thousands of years ago. Even today, when we know how to manufacture concrete and complex composite materials, wood is still essential in the field of construction and in terms of furniture, nothing really outclasses a maple or mahogany piece of furniture.

Everyone loves beautiful furniture. The only problem is that it’s also really expensive. You have to source the wood, then saw it, transport it, carve it, bend it, press it, and process it in every way. The cost can be offset by making the furniture easier to assemble on your own, but what ends up happening is that you’re woken up at night by strange nightmares where you wander endlessly around IKEA islands.

What if the furniture assembled itself? It sounds like fantasy, but in the future it could very well be possible if we imagine the possibilities of new research that has programmed flat wooden shapes to transform into complex 3D shapes.

From flat to curved

As often happens in science, the inspiration for this study came from nature. Wood, for example, naturally changes shape as it dries and loses moisture, but due to variations in fiber orientation, this shrinkage does not occur uniformly, resulting in warping.

“Warping can be a hindrance, but we thought we could try to understand this phenomenon and exploit it into a desirable morph,” says Doron Kam, a graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and one of the authors. of the new study.

Previously, researchers worked with “smart” artificial materials that can change shape when prompted by a stimulus. It can be a change in temperature, acidity, or something as simple as adding a drop of water.

But while these man-made materials are usually made of gels and elastomers, the Israeli research team wanted to work strictly with natural materials.

“We wanted to go back to the origin of this concept, to nature, and to do it with wood,” explains Professor Eran Sharon of the Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Sharon and her colleagues tried their hand at 3D printing wood a few years ago. Instead of the slick molten polymer that oozes from your typical 3D printer, the team made a water-based ink that contains wood waste microplastics mixed with cellulose nanocrystals and xyloglucan, which are natural binders mined of plants.

But as they tested different configurations for this ‘wood ink’, the researchers noticed that the path the material was deposited in by the printer nozzle affected the final shape of the printed object when the humidity started. to evaporate. For example, a flat disc printed in a series of concentric circles forms a saddle-like structure, much like a Pringles chip. A disc printed as a series of rays from a central focal point will produce a dome-like structure.

Print speed is another factor that can significantly alter the final shape of the printed wood-like object since the shrinkage occurs perpendicularly along the fibers of the ink. Slower printing results in a more random fiber orientation, so shrinkage occurs in all directions. A faster print will align the fibers with each other so the final object has a clear orientation.

By simply adjusting the speed and trajectory, the researchers were able to produce a number of predictable structures. Stacking two rectangular layers formed a helix as the material dried. They could even control whether the propeller rotated clockwise or counterclockwise.

Combining these different patterns, such as domes, helices, and saddles, can result in complicated structures, such as chairs or tables. The ultimate goal is for wood products to be shipped flat to consumers, which would significantly reduce shipping volume and costs.

“Then at destination, the object could warp into the desired structure,” Kam says.

About Oscar L. Smith

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