The University of Maine in Orono is in the process of installing the largest 3D printer in the world. One of its first uses will be to print molds for parts that boatbuilders can use. Two of the state’s boat manufacturers, Hinckley Yachts and Sabre Yachts, are partnering with the university on the project.
“The end goal here is that they would be using this bio-filled print media to directly print large molds that we would build our parts in,” Kevin Burns, vice president of design and product development for Sabre and its sister company Back Cove, told Trade Only Today.
James Anderson, advanced composites manager at the University of Maine, had a background in boat manufacturing and reached out to Sabre, Hinckley and other builders to get their input on the concept of 3D printed tooling.
According to the Bangor Daily News, the university is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn., on the printer. The state of Maine established the funds with a grant through the university.
The key to the project is the bio-filled material that is mixed with plastic to make the molds. The goal is to be able to recycle the molds once they’ve been used up. They would be ground up and used to make new molds from the same base material, which is a byproduct of Maine’s forestry industry. Wood flour is a fine sawdust mix that will be mixed with plastics to create a material that’s strong enough to produce molds that can create the volume of parts the boat manufacturers want. The expected lifespan of a mold is about 200 parts and that includes significant re-touching and fine tuning after the first 100 are produced, Burns said.
Currently, students in the program are working on finding the right mixture of plastic and bio-fill. The potential time savings on the R&D side could be substantial.
By continually recycling molds, a boat manufacturer would own tons of the material and use it when needed. “If this all goes as hoped, a company like Sabre and Back Cove would own tons of this material and we would just be paying for 3D print time,” said Burns. “There’s the potential for the cost of developing a new product could be 50 percent of what it costs today.”
He said that machine time cost with a 3D printer is comparable to a current CNC machine.
Earlier this year, Tahoe Boats made the first mold using 3D printing for its new T16. Instead of the eight weeks that are normally required to finish tooling, Tahoe said it took eight days.
Burns said that Sabre has had parts made by sub-contractors, including a direct-milled mold on its new 66-foot yacht.
The goal with the UMaine program is to start with smaller parts and have the first molds within 12 months.
In the second part of the program, Burns said that Sabre and Hinckley are working with the university to do a commercial application study of 3D-printed parts. The school is investigating whether using 3D printing can make finished pieces like a transom door. Instead of requiring two molds to make the door and having to glue them together and spend hours faring the part, “we would like to be able to print a part directly,” said Burns.