UBC researchers combine science and robotics for wood, cellulose

University of British Columbia researchers combine the science and robotics of wood and cellulose

At the University of British Columbia (UBC), researchers are combining science and robotics to develop new and innovative uses for wood and cellulose.

The UBC Center for Advanced Wood Processing (CAWP) is investigating how robots are used in wood processing.

“Robots are increasingly being used in wood processing,” said Jason Chiu, managing director of CAWP. “For example, five-axis CNC (computer numerical control) machines are used for many repetitive tasks in this sector, as well as in sanding, spraying and finishing.”

Robots, such as the track-mounted 8-axis CAWP machine and rotating tray, can also be used for milling.

Since grinding, which requires a series of different cuts, is not a repetitive process, robots need complex programming.

CAWP put the eight-axle machine into action in June when it hosted a week-long workshop to demonstrate automated wood milling nuts and bolts.

We have developed 3D printing technology… Cellulose fibers are used to produce 3D objects,

– Feng Jiang

University of British Columbia

Part of the workshop prompted participants to design and build a large-scale prototype out of plywood.

They used a robot to grind plywood sheets of different sizes and shapes and then assemble them on site.

The final product of the participants’ efforts was given a place on the UBC campus in Vancouver so that people passing by could look at it.

Chiu said CAWP was founded in the 1990s to provide training, research, and education for professional development of the Canadian value-added wood products industry.

There is growing support for the transition to a value-added industry that uses technologies such as robotics in order to boost job creation and encourage sustainable forest development.

“But there is a shortage here of a workforce with the right knowledge and skills to develop and apply the technologies needed to maintain our competitive position,” Chiu said. “In the past, the sector brought its expertise from abroad. Canada now wants to grow its experts.”

CAWP is a multidisciplinary initiative of the University of British Columbia managed, among others, by the College of Forestry.

There, researchers are developing bioproduct filaments that can be used in laser heads for 3D printers to manufacture additives.

“We have developed a 3D printing technology — a high-precision computer-aided design and manufacturing technology — that uses cellulose fibers to produce 3D objects,” said Feng Jiang, associate professor of forestry and Canada Chair for Research in Sustainable Functional Biomaterials.

Jiang said 3D printing can create highly complex and customized objects.

“The technology has been used for materials such as polymers, metals, ceramics and cement,” he said. “However, its application to biopolymers, especially cellulose, has been limited.”

One reason for its limited use is the difficulty of processing cellulose.

“For example, it cannot be treated with solubility or easily dissolved in green solvents,” Jiang said.

To address these challenges, University of British Columbia researchers have developed a water-based cellulose ink that can be 3D printed in various shapes.

“There are millions of cellulose nanofibers grouped together into a single cellulose fiber that can be found in paper or tissue,” he said.

Jiang and colleagues used this technique to print a lightweight honeycomb structure with some unique properties.

“Nature has created many clever and sophisticated designs, from the wings of butterflies to the shells of beetles, that reflect millions of years of evolution,” he said.

The honeycomb structure created in Jiang’s lab is light enough to stand atop a dandelion, but also strong enough to carry more than 15,000 times its own weight (as the weight of a kettle ball) on top of it.

“When it is wet, this structure also shows superior flexibility,” Jiang said. “It can be bent, rolled and twisted in all directions.”

He said that in the future it is possible to use a cellulose honeycomb structure of this type as a lightweight structural component, a thermal insulating layer, or for various consumer products.

“The primary goal of a research program is to convert naturally abundant biomass into functional biomaterials, to create alternative sources of beneficial materials,” Jiang said. “We are seeing the range of forest products expand beyond traditional wood, pulp and paper products to include high-performance cellulose-based materials.

“My lab focuses on the latter. We design high-performance materials by mimicking nature’s processes and using simple and abundantly available elements and materials.”

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