Maine has a long, proud history of producing boats and ships. The state is home to many small boatbuilders such as Back Cove Yachts, Hinckley Yachts, Hodgdon Yachts and Sabre Corp. It’s also home to large ship builders such as Bath Iron Works.
That manufacturing heritage stretches back several hundred years to the days when wooden clippers, schooners and other tall ships were a common sight along the rocky shores of the Northeast.
The University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center (UMaine Composites Center) is attempting to build on that tradition by using state-of-the-art additive manufacturing technology to propel the boatbuilding industry into the 21st century.
The 23-year-old UMaine Composites Center is home to 70 full-time engineers. It features a 100,000-square-feet lab space that studies materials from the molecular level all the way up to full-scale structures, such as 200-foot-long wind turbine blades.
For the past 18 years, the UMaine Composites Center has been developing technologies to extrude plastics filled with wood cellulose and nanocellulose fibers. These plastics contain up to 50 percent wood fiber by weight.
“Now, we will use these same stronger and stiffer plastics in very large 3D printers to develop 20- to 100-foot molds for Maine boatbuilders,” says Habib Dagher, executive director of the UMaine Composites Center. “By printing plastics with 50 percent wood, we aim to produce boat molds much faster and cheaper than today’s traditional methods.
“As we learn, we will be working with boatbuilders to incorporate 3D printing in their production processes for larger boat parts and, eventually, the boats themselves,” explains Dagher. “Our goal is to explore how large-scale printing using economical, wood-filled plastics can provide the local boatbuilding industry with a competitive advantage.
“Small- to medium-sized boatbuilders are often challenged by the cost and lead time required to create traditional marine tools and boat molds,” Dagher points out. “Additive manufacturing can help significantly reduce the production time needed to fabricate molds by as much as 75 percent.”
“Custom boatbuilders need a lot of tooling and molds, because they don’t make many vessels,” adds James Anderson, senior R&D program manager at the UMaine Composites Center. “Just about every product they make is different than the next.
“These companies are very traditional, but they’re also quite innovative,” claims Anderson. “They’re interested in the benefits of using additive manufacturing technology.
“Initially, we’re looking at ways to apply this technology to produce more cost-effective hull molds and deck molds,” says Anderson. “We’ve also printed some small nonstructural components, such as helm parts. In the future, we will explore larger structural components, such as bulkheads and stringers.”
According to Anderson, widespread adoption of large-scale additive manufacturing in the boatbuilding industry has been hindered by the high cost of 3D printers and feedstock materials.
To address these issues, Anderson and his colleagues hope to develop a range of economical wood-filled materials for composite tooling applications. “The use of the wood-based fillers significantly reduces the cost, and increases the stiffness and toughness of the material, while reducing the environmental impact and improving recyclability,” he points out.
“[Many small manufacturers] cannot absorb the cost of acquiring a large-scale 3D printer and testing new feedstock materials,” notes Anderson. “We have the tools and knowledge to help them increase productivity, reduce costs and, ultimately, continue their tradition of excellence in the boatbuilding industry.”
To develop advanced additive manufacturing technology, the UMaine Composites Center recently received a $500,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute.