Since June, Habib Dagher and his team had watched their custom 3D printer being put together. Before that, it had taken them three years to find a company that could even build the kind of 3D printer they wanted, incorporating their patent-pending technology. And before that, it had taken them about 15 years’ worth of science to develop the materials the printer would use to create things once they turned it on. On a Thursday night this past fall, that moment finally arrived.
“We asked the team, what should be the first thing we print with this?” says Dagher, who is executive director of the UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine. “We had the option of printing something small and meager, but we wanted to see where the glass ceiling was.”
Photos | 3D-printed boat Gallery
Just 72 hours later, at 10:15 p.m. that Sunday night, they had created what Guinness World Records certified in October as the world’s largest 3D-printed boat and largest solid 3D-printed object, using the world’s largest prototype polymer 3D printer. “It was an exciting moment,” he says. “When we got it done, it was 5,000 pounds, printed all in one piece.”
The boat, called 3Dirigo, stands as a harbinger of how boatbuilding itself may evolve in the coming years. It is 25 feet long and made from bio-based feedstock—which means that instead of incorporating glass fibers, as a builder would to create a fiberglass boat, the 3D printer used biofibers that the center has figured out how to make from renewable resources including corn and trees.
“We break down the wood to a nanofiber structure, and we take that plus microfibers of wood, and we put that into a bio-based, recyclable plastic,” Dagher says. “These nanofibers do two things: They make the plastic stronger and stiffer. They’re about a thousand times smaller than sawdust. They have properties similar to metal, but it’s very challenging to work with them. If you take the fibers and put them in plastics, you can make very strong plastics.”
Those plastics can have properties similar to aluminum, but they also are recyclable, which in theory could eliminate the entire problem of what to do with non-recyclable composite boats at the end of their days. “We’re looking at creating things that are 100 percent recyclable,” Dagher says. “Let’s say you use a boat for 50 or 100 years, you can grind it down and turn it into something else.”
Dagher says his team has been working with boatbuilders throughout Maine on this idea for quite some time. Sabre Yachts in Raymond is involved, he says, as is Hodgdon Yachts in Boothbay. This past summer, before his center’s own 3D printer arrived, Dagher’s team used one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to create a 1,200-pound mold for Hodgdon. The boatbuilder then used the mold to make the roof of a limo tender, Dagher says.
When 3Dirigo finished printing this fall in Maine, a team from Front Street Shipyard in Belfast went to the center to install a 150-hp engine—so Dagher’s team could make sure their 3D-printed boat would actually float.
“They mounted the steering system and put the seating on, just like you would do with a normal boat,” Dagher says. “We put in standard deck plugs. We drilled and put in the outboard-mounting system. Once you build it, you can treat the hull just like any other hull and finish it off.”
3Dirigo was then taken to the Alfond W2 Ocean Engineering Laboratory, which UMaine unveiled in 2015 as a place to let companies test designs for offshore wind turbines, underwater turbines and ships. It has a high-performance wind machine over a multidirectional wave basin. “We put it in the wave basin, and it floated,” Dagher says. “We had eight people on the boat at one point, running the waves and the winds. There’s a lot more to learn, but it floated.”
The 3D printer at the center can produce objects 100 feet long by 22 feet wide by 10 feet high, printing at 500 pounds per hour. As just one example, a boat designer could send a CAD drawing for a 40-foot hull to the center, which would feed the drawing into the 3D printer. A few days later, the prototype hull would exist. “That changes the game in terms of the ability to innovate, not just for boatbuilding, but for all kinds of industries,” Dagher says. “We’ve had people call about train cars—those are fairly complex with an aerodynamic shape.”
Theoretically, he says, the existing printer could produce a hull prototype for a 200-foot superyacht right now. It just would have to be printed in two pieces and then bonded or welded together. “Certainly, we’re not going to start there, but doing a 60-footer in one piece right now is very feasible,” he says.
The center has already started working on its next hulls, learning from 3Dirigo what worked well, what could be better and how to make adjustments going forward. The center’s goal is that within a few months, and no later than the end of 2020, it will be able to ship 100-percent recyclable boat molds to builders. Those molds could be used for production boats or for custom one-offs, after which they could be returned to the center for grinding down and reformulation as new molds, or as other things altogether.
“What you will see coming to the marketplace in the next year is fully printed boat molds,” he says. “And in the meantime, we’re perfecting ways to make stronger, better boats so we can just skip the mold altogether.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.