The 2019 boat show season, which kicked off in late April, promises to be an exciting one. Boat enthusiasts and potential buyers will have a great look at everything from new fiberglass rowboats all the way up to superyachts suitable for Hollywood celebrities and princes alike. Many of the more expensive boats will feature heavy doses of carbon fiber fabricated with 3D printing.
Yes, you did read that correctly. Carbon fiber is not reserved for things like golf clubs and tennis rackets. It is a material that has been used by the marine and aerospace industries for decades. And now that 3D printing is so advanced, carbon fiber is more frequently being chosen as a building material for superyachts.
One advantage of 3D printing is that it allows for continuous composite fabrication. The term 'continuous' refers to the ability to print an entire part from start to finish with a single, continuous line of carbon fiber thread. It is all possible thanks to some pretty impressive technologies.
TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED PRINTHEADS
Continuous 3D printing of carbon fiber starts with technologically advanced printheads. These are not the same printheads you find in inkjet printers. They work on the same principle, but they are far more advanced. They are also way more costly.
A 3D printhead for composite applications actually consists of two nozzles in one. Through one nozzle comes the delicate carbon fiber thread while epoxy resin flows through the other. The two substances are combined just before they are laid down on the printing surface.
Some of the more advanced printheads are capable of doing some impressive things. For example, fiber volume can be controlled depending on need. Volumes between 50% and 60% are pretty common these days. In addition, variable compaction is also possible.
Compaction is the process of applying pressure to successive layers of continuous filament in order to maintain consistency. To print something as large and complicated as a yacht hull requires different amounts of pressure at different points in the print. Thus, variable compaction is a big plus.
NO AUTOCLAVES NEEDED
There are a lot of advantages to printing continuous carbon fiber parts. For example, no tools (molds) are necessary. That means no manual layups, no vacuum bagging, and no autoclave curing. Eliminating the need for autoclaves saves both time and money.
An autoclave is essentially a giant oven the cures carbon fiber parts to a combination of heat and pressure. Printing carbon fiber with a 3D printer does not require autoclave curing. Instead, fabricators use special UV-activated resins that cure almost as quickly as the continuous carbon fiber is being laid down.
GREATER EFFICIENCY, LESS TIME
Manual layups are still the most reasonable way to produce some types of composite parts. But in situations for which tooling has to be extremely large – like boat hulls and airplane wings – 3D printing makes more sense. 3D printing is more efficient than building tools. It also requires less time and labor. Both are big pluses when you are a fabricator trying to push out parts as quickly as possible and at the lowest cost.
So, how do you print a yacht with carbon fiber? You invest in a high-tech 3D printer with a special printhead capable of accommodating carbon fiber thread and UV-activated resins. Then you hire someone to design the yacht and the computer program that will be responsible for printing it.
Finally, you load the printer and let it run. Once it's done, you have a beautiful hull made of tough, weather-resistant, and lightweight carbon fiber more than capable of sailing.