Next to a 5-axis CNC milling machine in The Brooks Building at the International Yacht Restoration School are two small 3-D printers — two of the many types of 3-D printers here.
During a visit in late August, each made little noise while rapidly applying layer after layer of plastic in complicated patterns. At first, the creations looked like electronic circuit boards. After about an hour and a half, a plastic model of a shark, created from an online blueprint, lay on each print bed. One of the sharks was articulated, so each joint could move, making it appear as if it were swimming when wiggled.
With traditional manufacturing, those pieces would have needed to be individually manufactured and attached — much more time consuming and labor-intensive, according to Jeff Elsbecker, lead faculty of digital modeling and fabrication at the IYRS School of Technology and Trades’ Digital Manufacturing and Fabrication Program.
“Here you have no tooling costs, per se, and the machine can produce one or 100 of these,” Elsbecker says. “It’s great for short-run manufacturing, and speeding up research and development.”
Digital Manufacturing and Fabrication is a nine-month IYRS program that lets students learn about the technology, in addition to the school’s traditional wooden boatbuilding and restoration focus. The speed of changing technology has IYRS instructors teaching graduates how to be innovative problem solvers who are well-versed in 3-D printing and composites, so the students can grow careerwise as the technology improves.
“There’s so much to keep up with because the technology is changing so fast, so we had to make what we thought were smart decisions about what to focus on,” Elsbecker says.
That newness of technology presents its own challenges. One of the machines printing the sharks had shifted, so only one shark came out with joints. The other looked like it had melted on the print bed. Earlier, when a 3-D printer ribbon broke, IYRS learned the company that manufactured them had gone out of business less than a year after they’d been purchased.
But the rapid pace of change is also an asset, because the technology’s potential is constantly expanding. While IYRS is printing plastic sharks, a company called Relativity Space has a goal of 3-D printing a rocket to launch by 2021.
“The lighter a part is, the faster it prints and, thus, the cheaper it is,” CEO Tim Ellis told Via Satellite magazine. “Because 3-D printed parts are sculpted from a block of metal, there is a reward for making parts as light as possible from the strongest materials. This is inverted with traditional methods of production. Printing is good for things that fly, especially so for rockets.”
Such is the case with boats, particularly those designed to fly across the water.
3-D printing America’s Cup boats
The America’s Cup will race AC75s at the 2021 event. The AC75 is a 75-foot monohull that uses hydrofoils to sail above the water. Each team can build two AC75s.
American Magic, the U.S. syndicate challenging for the 36th Cup, is using 3-D printing at its construction facility in Bristol, Rhode Island. Andrew Gaynor, founder and principal engineer at JAG Composites and a design team member, says 3-D printers produce a variety of plastic pieces, including mockup parts, test parts and fixtures. Those never make it aboard the boats, but 3-D-printed electrical enclosures, custom centers and electric device casings do because they can design them to be mostly waterproof, Gaynor says.
The team also can 3-D print aerospace-grade aluminum, titanium and high-strength stainless steel for parts that can’t be manufactured any other way.
“That’s the benefit of the metal 3-D printing technology,” Gaynor says. “You’re allowed to build things which otherwise would take too many steps or processes on a conventional machine, or couldn’t even be done on a machine. For example, secluded areas where tools couldn’t actually cut. You can take a shortcut by using that technology. You don’t have to really think hard or make multiple parts that are then screwed together. You can make just one.”
For example, daggerboards are 3-D printed. They are in constant motion as they help a boat “fly” across the water. “They’re very highly loaded structures, and we wanted to make sure they could bear the load,” Gaynor says. “The systems require bearings to be able to move up and down smoothly and with as little power as possible, so the daggerboards were 3-D printed for precision.”
The America’s Cup has a high enough profile that some companies with large printing capabilities are eager to form partnerships.
“We are either afforded access to these machines or given machine time to make some parts,” Gaynor says. “That furthers the industry. The more these things are out there and people realize you can print stuff out of metal, the more people are going to think about it and incorporate it into what they do.”
One downside of the technology is that the printer bed itself is typically only around 8 inches by 8 inches, Gaynor says. “There are lots of different technologies coming online, and some restrictive patents are expiring, so all of that will open up the opportunity to expand it, make it quicker and stronger,” Gaynor says. “I don’t think it’s going to be refined and refined and then the cost comes down. I think the technology will fork off in some direction, and that will be what everyone recognizes in 10 years, 15 years.
“Yes, in time you’ll have a 3-D-printed boat,” Gaynor adds. “It just might not be what you imagine 3-D printing as right now.”
3-D boat parts today
The Hinckley Co. used 3-D printing to create the titanium hardware and console on its electric boat, Dasher, unveiled last year. Hinckley partnered with the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center to design parts and select materials that would withstand the sun. The school also had a machine large enough to print the console with a level of accuracy Hinckley couldn’t have achieved with an FRP part.
The technology allowed the precision necessary to remove more than 2,000 pounds of weight for the boat’s electric propulsion, says Hinckley chief operating officer Michael Arieta.
Scott Bryant, Hinckley’s vice president of product development and engineering, calls the potential of 3-D printing “remarkable” because it could save steps in the manufacture of fiberglass-reinforced plastic parts and alternative parts, potentially eliminating the need to create a plug and mold and then molding pieces. Hinckley’s 5-axis CNC machine could be retrofitted to become a 3-D printer.
And depending on what the load parts are from an engineering perspective, manufacturers can add more material, called fill, into that area and design it down to a detailed level with 3-D printers.
“They’re fast, they’re precise, and it’s great for creating shapes that were hard to create in the past,” Bryant says.
Volvo Penta of the Americas has been using a selective laser-centering 3-D printer since the early 2000s, says William Gremminger, manager of transmission engineering at Volvo Penta. “Generally, we use it for prototyping a part that would normally require expensive and long-lead tooling, like die-cast tooling, or different types of casting methods,” Gremminger says.
With Volvo Penta’s Forward Drive, the machines were instrumental in designing cavitation plates. They could 3-D print relatively inexpensive parts to test and tweak, for preventing engine-cooling water from overloading the pump and causing cavitation, which erodes the aluminum housing.
“You have to shape the plates perfectly so they scoop just the right amount of water,” Gremminger says. “We can 3-D print these parts, and we have underwater cameras to test them. It’s great. It lets us figure this balance out in a week or two, versus a year. I can’t imagine not having it now.”
While 3-D printing speeds up research and development, it is rarely used for actual production. The powder that machines need is expensive, and the machines can take 24 hours to make a batch of parts, Gremminger says, “whereas with injection molding, they spit them out, and you get a part that costs pennies versus dollars.”
The speed of change makes establishing curricula challenging at IYRS, so instructors focus on teaching graduates to be well-versed in 3-D printing and composites and to be problem solvers. Students learn how to design using traditional machines, CNC mills and lathes, as well as on software platforms, and as the school identified this new direction for expansion, it made a choice not to keep instruction at The Brooks Building marine focused.
Not all prospects are clear about how they would apply digital fabrication and manufacturing skills in the real world, but Wiseman and Elsbecker think programs like the one at IYRS can help address the growing workforce shortage. “We’re trying to build relationships with regional tech and art teachers at schools so more and more students know about it,” says Wiseman. And it uses its Mobile Maker Lab to bring the technology across the state.
“The reality is the technology and software are going to evolve as it advances,” Wiseman says. “The goal is to teach students to digest and think about things in a different way.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.