Hot Off the Press
The world’s largest polymer 3D printer utilizes two of the Pine Tree State’s iconic sources—its forests and boatbuilders—to lead the way into the future.
I first covered 3D printing in this column about two years back (See “Just Press Print” ), highlighting a few European builders who were experimenting with materials and polymers from the aerospace industry to print small components. While some inroads were made, the possibility of designing and building an entire boat was limited by its sheer size.
When the news broke early last year that construction was underway at the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center on the world’s largest polymer 3D printer, my mind raced with the potential of housing this advancement in the heart of one of our nation’s boatbuilding superclusters. After the university secured a $20 million research collaboration with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest science and energy laboratory), they doubled down on a commitment to the state’s boatbuilders, and also to its robust forestry industry, to develop a bio-based thermoplastic from wood.
As construction ramped up, the university tapped marine industry vets throughout the state to work in concert with its team, including Back Cove, Sabre, Hinckley, Hodgdon, Front Street Shipyard and Lyman-Morse. Together with Maine’s leaders in composite construction—Kenway Composites, Custom Composite Technologies and Compounding Solutions—the technology cluster worked to develop the wood-filled plastic that would form the materials used by the 3D printer. “The combination of additive manufacturing and cost-effective, bio-filled materials is a potential game changer for Maine’s boatbuilding industry,” James Anderson, senior research and program manager of the Composites Center, said in a statement. “[It] can reduce the cost of marine tooling by as much as 50 percent.”
That’s excellent news to the builders—developing new models and purchasing components, tooling and machining are some of their largest expenditures. To be able to develop large-scale boat molds, implement rapid design changes and remove the need to physically build prototypes saves significant capital and can reduce production times from months to days.
Maine governor Janet Mills and senators Susan Collins and Angus King joined business execs from throughout the state at the unveiling of the massive machine last October. After a brief ceremony that celebrated the three Guinness World Records earned by the Advanced Structures and Composites Center—including world’s largest 3D printer—the surprise came for the other two in the form of a 25-foot, 5,000-pound patrol boat, earning accolades as the largest 3D-printed object ever made and for the world’s largest 3D-printed boat. “By working together, UMaine and Oak Ridge will strengthen environmentally responsible advanced manufacturing … as well as the forest-products industry in Maine,” Sen. Collins said in a statement. The marine and forestry industries are two of the state’s largest employers.
It took three days to print the world-record 3Dirigo—the name a combination of the tech and the state’s motto, Latin for “I direct.” (It can print objects up to 100 feet long by 22 feet wide by 10 feet high at a rate of 500 pounds per hour.) Watching the time-lapse video of the event with the boat suddenly materializing from transom to bow, my first thought was we’re only seeing a fraction of the machine’s capability, an exciting prospect.
Before 3Dirigo, builders were hyped about the potential for having smaller parts 3D-printed from all-composite materials, as a way to move forward and cut costs. At the same time, many expressed concerns about the dearth of skilled labor. The 3D printer addresses both issues, best summarized by Rep. Jared Golden: “The University of Maine Composites Center … will bring jobs to our state … Their work has impressive potential to change how we make things out of all sorts of materials—including Maine wood fiber. Today, [we] celebrate innovation that will help protect and create good-paying Maine jobs in forest products and manufacturing.”
The upside for 3D printing is huge. Expect to hear much more on how the 3D printer aims to modernize an already highly skilled boatbuilding workforce once the projects move from prototypes to production.