Why do I (still) believe that 3D printing of biomaterials is the thing of the future?

Three years ago we started the NOVUM project with great enthusiasm. Our target was to develop a novel process for manufacturing of electrical insulation components from cellulose, aiming at resource and energy saving, decreased waste generation and increased cost-effectiveness compared to the state-of-the art.

Electrical insulation components are used in power transformers. Cellulose is a common material for their manufacturing but the current process is rather inefficient. 3D printing enables combining design-thinking with the actual production process and various shapes can be produced without the use of molds. For us, this seemed like a perfect improvement for the manufacturing of electrical insulation parts. In addition, 3D printing of biomaterials could provide solutions for replacement of plastics with more sustainable materials beyond our application.

Even though the journey has involved many challenges during these years, the project group still shares the vision that future belongs to bio-based materials and 3D printing.

We challenge the inherent properties of biomaterials

When we started the project, there was very little information on the 3D printing of biomaterials in the public domain, and even less industrial examples. The inherent properties of biomaterials caused a lot of headache. Cellulose is not a thermoplastic material, which softens when heat is applies. However, this is generally one of the properties needed for printing of durable parts in three-dimensional shapes. Fortunately, the chemists at VTT already had some ideas on how to modify cellulose into a more thermoplastic material. We successfully printed the first prototype with only a few months into the project. At this point, the project seemed to achieve its targets in record-time.

The next challenge was — and still is — the requirements electrical insulation components have for their raw materials. The components are used in power transformers, where they must perform submerged in oil under high temperature and mechanical stress for a long time, even 30 years!

There has been constant progress in developing thermoplastic cellulose-based materials for electrical insulation, and with each formulation we have come closer to the end-use requirements. However, all the requirements are not fulfilled yet. The first promising prototype failed in the first test. At this point it felt like we had slammed into a brick wall.

Where else could we use 3D-printed bio-based materials?

However, the promising results obtained in the material development led us thinking other potential end use applications. Could we use the materials for something else than electrical insulation? We presented the material innovations in a trade fair specialized in 3D printing and our booth was quickly filled with people interested in biomaterials. We were easily distinguished from the other exhibitors as the only ones offering biomaterials for 3D printing.

In the trade fair, we had interesting discussions with people from various industries and started thinking about widening the scope of our project. The question now was what could be the applications and industries that would benefit from 3D printing technology and replacement of fossil-based materials with bio-based ones?

The next step: pilot line for testing of new applications

Since launching the call for new partners, organisations representing automotive and marine industry have joined the project. With them, we are innovating novel applications, which are suited for their industry and can be accomplished with bio-based materials. Examples include components for dashboards in cars and furniture in cruise ships. We plan to realize our plans by building an automated pilot line based on 3D printing and using cellulose-based material developed in the project as the raw material. The pilot line will be used for printing of 3D-shaped components to be tested by our project partners. After testing, there is still the opportunity to modify the material properties in order to be better suitable for the specific end use purpose.

After the project end, the pilot line will be available for those who believe that this is only the beginning of 3D printing of biomaterials and that we will see many breakthroughs in this field in the future! Will we see 3D-printed parts elsewhere in the transportation sector? Or perhaps we’ll encounter them in packaging or furniture? Where would you like to see them?

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