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Is 3D printing the future of vehicle manufacture?



Researchers from the University of Maine are currently testing an 8 metre fibreglass patrol boat built in just 72 hours by a 3D printer.

Named 3Dirigo, this is the largest boat to ever be built by a 3D printer
(Image via University of Maine)

The boat was unveiled on the 10th October 2019 and is the largest ever to be built using 3D printed methods.

Using this technology for large scale fibreglass manufacture is a new endeavour but, if successful, 3D print methods can dramatically cut the cost and time required to produce vehicles such as boats or rockets. 

“This has never been done in the world,” said Habib Dagher, executive director of the composites center.

The purpose of this is to see what’s possible.”

Currently building these sorts of vessels is a process that can take months. Manufacturers have to first construct a mould then build up layers of resin and glass fibre, before extracting and finishing it. With an outsize 3D printer, the design can be built automatically, layer by layer.

The advanced 3D printer can craft large scale designs much faster and more accurately
(Image via University of Maine)

What makes this research different?

Size is everything. When 3D printing ordinarily, your design is only limited by the size of the printer itself. However as engineers have attempted to scale up printers for us on larger projects, the result has often been a less accurate print job that requires further hand-finishing at the end. In addition, the actual printing process is very slow. 

The University of Maine’s researchers are aiming to overcome these issues with a newly designed 3D printer designed and built with Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Ingersoll Machine Tools in Illinois. The new machine works by suspending the printer’s nozzle from a gantry. The nozzle moves horizontally to deposit one layer of material, before moving up to print the next. Because of this, the design isn’t “contained” within the printer itself - allowing for much larger designs.

Currently the researchers claim that the machine can craft objects up to 30m long, 7m wide and 3m tall.

The patrol boat was crafted as part of a program by the US Army
(Image via University of Maine)

The university’s printer is also much faster, printing molten thermoplastic resin with carbon fibres at a rate of 70kg (150lb) per hour. The arm can then be fitted with processing equipment, such as automated milling heads to grind away any surface imperfections.

It took less than 3 days to print a patrol boat for an American Army project, which is now being tested for durability and other factors.

Following this the university hope to develop their 3D printing prospects further with different composite materials, including some more environmentally friendly options. They are also exploring alternative products for the machine to print, including moulds and production tools.

LA-based Relativity Space are already using 3D printing to develop metal parts for space rockets - heralding a future where 3D printing is used across the manufacturing industry
(Image via Relativity Space)

There's also the potential for 3D printing metal objects faster and at larger scales, through a system that would melt successive layers of metallic powder using a laser or electron beam. Another company, Relativity Space, is using 3D printing methods as continuous-welding robots that can build metal parts for space rockets.

Each of these robots has an aluminium-alloy wire at its print head, that is melted by a high-temperature plasma arc and deposited in layers to create the parts. 

With advanced 3D printers able to generate designs at increased sizes, with improved accuracy and greater speed; we could soon see it become a much more common method of manufacturing boats, rockets and other vehicles and parts.

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Is 3D printing the future of vehicle manufacture? - Time to read 3 min
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