An Australian company that has developed technology to turn wood waste into timber that looks and performs like 100-year-old tropical hardwood has entered an agreement with Bosch to globalise the product.Andrew Spence
Based in Adelaide and Melbourne, 3RT has spent six years developing its world-first technology in collaboration with Flinders University in South Australia, launching its first commercial product, Designer Hardwood, last year.
It achieved international recognition with a gold medal in the 2019 Good Design Awards and continues to manufacture the ‘smartwood’ products for the indoor furnishings industry in Australia, using its prototype commercial unit at its innovation centre in Adelaide.
However, the agreement with Bosch – one of the world’s leading advanced manufacturing companies – will allow it to boost its own capacity and license the units to companies overseas.
The technology uses a water-based “nano-glue” that is mixed with the waste wood to replicate the properties of mature natural hardwood.
3RT Managing Director Peter Torreele said the final product was comparable to the highest quality hardwood but was sustainable as it was made from waste timber residues that would otherwise be woodchipped.
He said the licensing units would be ideally suited to Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL) and plywood producers that used plantation resources and generated a lot of wood waste suitable for use in the units.
“The units are plug and play units that are very compact and agile with a small footprint so we can place them around the world very quickly in locations that we believe are suitable to give access to those local resources,” Torreele said.
“We already have one running in Adelaide and Bosch is adding Internet of Things capability, which means that if we have a unit somewhere else it is remotely connected to our innovation centre so we can track all the data, develop new products and undergo maintenance.”
3RT has an estimated potential project market size of A$1.2 billion globally.
Researchers from the Flinders Institute for NanoScale Science & Technology in South Australia have already worked with more than 100 species, including 30 international wood types to make specialised recipes.
Torreele said the relationship with Flinders University would continue to develop new products and create specific recipes as new customers came on board.
“For instance, if we find a resource in Canada, we first develop the specific recipe in Adelaide, Bosch builds the unit and once we put the unit in Canada we can straight away produce the product that we have already developed and tested at the innovation centre in Adelaide,” he said.
“It’s a very fast way of scaling up thanks to the relationships with Flinders University and Bosch.
“We also have a very aggressive technology roadmap with Flinders University, which is around the product itself. The idea with that is everything you put on top of a piece of wood today we want to put inside the product so you don’t have to maintain it anymore and it’s done in a non-toxic way.
“Most of the products used to make a product waterproof for instance are harmful ingredients so we want to work with Flinders University to create products with additional benefits of, for instance, termite, water or fire resistance.”
Each production cell will have a footprint of about 650sq m and is equipped with IoT technology to allow the unit to be remotely connected to the Adelaide innovation centre for recipe development, trouble shooting, maintenance and upgrades.
Torreele said he hoped to have the first Bosch commercial scale unit operating at another site by the middle of next year.
He said he expected staff numbers at the Adelaide innovation centre to increase from 8 to about 30 with further growth at the company’s Melbourne headquarters.
“We’re pretty ambitious – we’re talking about putting 10, 20, 30 units around the world in the next 5 to 10 years,” he said.
“Creating an idea in the first place is relatively easy but then it’s about how you bring it to market in an economical way and that has taken us a couple of years and now with Bosch on our side we know we have the capabilities to do that.”
3RTs commercial products have only been sold in Australia so far and include indoor furnishings such as flooring, stairs, doors and panelling.
“We are producing the maximum that we can make at the moment and that’s why we need this capability with Bosch, who has the capacity to scale very fast and wherever we want in the world,” Torreele said.
“We wanted to really develop our route to market and really understand the dynamics, the consumer insights and then we would have a model we could present to our partners overseas.
“Part of our assistance to them is not only saying these are the kinds of products we can make for you but these are the ways we suggest you could build your market because we have done it already in Australia.”
Flinders University owns a share of 3RT as part of the research contract.
Flinders University Professor and co-developer David Lewis is also a director of 3RT and said the sustainability of their Designer Hardwood product and a resurgence in the popularity of wooden products were attractive selling points.
“It really is an exciting development and the commitment from Bosch has been wonderful and is appreciated by the company and the university because it is a pathway to expansion,” Professor Lewis said.
“Actually seeing real world results of the research we are doing is very satisfying for us as individuals but also for the university because we are having an impact in the world.”
The Bosch Group’s board of management member responsible for Asia Pacific, Peter Tyroller, has visited the Adelaide innovation centre and said 3RT’s technology was a great example of Australian innovation.
“3RT is addressing the significant environmental and supply challenges relating to old growth hardwood, applying Bosch technology and knowhow,” he said.
This article first appeared in The Lead.