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MakerBots and Vegetables

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The Future of Boatbuilding - page 2

By Capt. Bill Pike

MakerBot trial and error produces a stringy mess

(above) MakerBot trial and error produces a stringy mess, not a model (below).

MakerBot boat model

Right now, the initial stages of boatbuilding at Carver are pretty much conventional. New vessels are drawn on paper by an artist, then Jendro renders the drawings into computer models using Rhino software, and then finally, after said models are vetted and perhaps modified by a host of other Carver employees, from the honchos on down, the appropriate data is fired off to Donald L. Blount & Associates in Virginia so the requisite plugs can be cut and refined with 5-axis routers. Tooling is subsequently made from the plugs, thereby completing a decidedly modern but mainstreamy process.

Jendro’s added a new, futuristic wrinkle of late, however. During the early development of the new C34, for example, he employed the MakerBot 3D printer to create scale models so his colleagues could, in very tactile, immediate ways, vet the aesthetic appeal of design changes, tweak running surfaces, and ensure that components (hull, deck, flying bridge, and other parts) would accurately fit together during prototyping. “It worked so well we did the C40 the same way,” he says.

His success with the MakerBot got Jendro to thinking. On the one hand, there’s no question that the use of 5-axis routers to cut plugs for hulls and other parts from giant rectilinear blocks of foam supported on steel frames is the apotheosis of boatbuilding today. But on the other, might such technology be working its way toward decline, primarily because it entails many complicated, time-consuming steps and produces large and expensive piles of tough-to-dispose-of, plastic-foam waste? And might manufacturers like Carver someday bypass these complexities and issues and instead simply create plugs directly using 3-D printers, computer programs, and wholly recyclable plastics made from vegetables or, more particularly, corn?

“There’s a canning plant out there right now that’s close and convenient,” enthuses Jendro, pointing through a window topped off with blue Pulaski sky, “where every day they bring in trailer-load after trailer-load of corn from the fields around here. So you take that corn, let’s say, and turn it into PLA (Polylactic Acid, a renewable-resource-derived polyester presently used in packaging and consumer goods), which is probably the future of plastic in the post-petroleum era. And then, using the PLA, you forget all about cutting your plugs from big, problematic chunks of foam and create them instead from scratch using a printer. And recycle the end result after you’re done—just clean the PLA off and melt it for reuse. No waste!”

While the scenario may seem a tad far-fetched all by its lonesome, there’s an additional aspect to Jendro’s vision that pushes things even further. Why continue to bother with plugs and molds anyway, he wonders. Why not use a 3-D printer and various raw materials, some similar to PLA and some perhaps more advanced, to simply and directly build a boat, creating not only the hull, deck, and other major modules, but also all the plumbing runs, electrical circuitry, bulkheads, stringers, furniture, and other components inside?

“It’s not as crazy as it sounds,” he opines with a grin, “Serious people are already talking about using 3-D printers to make human kidneys and other complicated human organs. Why not an express cruiser?”

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