A large 3-D printer to be unboxed at the University of Maine this summer could open up innovative, new uses for wood.

The printer will use a roughly 50-50 mix of plastic resins and wood cellulose to create three-dimensional objects, such as boat hulls or custom furniture. An initial use, however, is likely to be the molds used in boat-building, said university officials who note other uses are likely to come to the fore, creating additional products and demand for wood.

“This is the beginning of a long road. We haven’t even thought of all the possibilities,” said Habib Dagher, a professor of structural engineering at the university and executive director of the management of UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.

The technology behind the plastic-wood printers was initially developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, using a plastic-cellulose material developed at Orono. Scientists at UMaine and Oak Ridge will team up for continued research in Orono after a new, large 3-D printer arrives in August. It’s expected to be up and running this fall.

A pellet made of poplar and plastic rests on a finger. These pellets are fed into a large 3D printer and later extruded, making items such as molds to create hulls for boats.

The process of using the printer begins by breaking wood down into cellulose that is mixed with resins or other material to form tiny beads. The beads are then fed into the printer, which combines them according to a software program into a product that is forced out, or extruded, from the printer. Dagher said someone needing, say, a 70-foot conference table with an engraved inlay could program software for that design and segments for a tabletop to those specifications would be produced.

The technology holds promise for Maine’s boat-building industry, Dagher said. Several boatbuilders have integrated composite materials into their manufacturing processes already.

One of the first products created by the printer was a mold that boat builders use to manufacture hulls. Technicians at Oak Ridge already have created part of a mold, which UMaine researchers have taken to Orono for further testing.

Combining elements of wood with plastic in the printer adds strength to the final product, Dagher said, and using a printer to create molds saves time and allows easier and quicker modifications. The mold is also recyclable, he said, creating a further benefit.

“Boatbuilding is just one of the things we’re looking at to demonstrate this technology,” he said, and it’s possible that boats themselves could eventually be created by the 3-D printer. Other potential uses, Dagher said, include molds for bridge parts, furniture and even vehicles.

“There’s no reason you couldn’t print that,” Dagher said, envisioning the day when a consumer could design, for instance, a backyard shed on a computer and have it printed, using a wood and plastic 3-D printer, at a hardware store for pickup.

The 3-D printer at Oak Ridge is about the size of a small room and can produce pieces up to 6 feet by 8 feet and 8 feet tall, said Bill Peter, the director of manufacturing demonstration facilities at the lab. But he said most pieces are smaller and designed to be joined together.

The printer can extrude about 110 pounds an hour, he said, and the section of mold that’s now in Orono took about 24 hours to print.

Last week, UMaine and Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced a $20 million collaboration to advance the plastic-wood printing process. Researchers at Oak Ridge knew of the growing expertise in composites at UMaine and were eager to work with the university, said Craig Blue, the director of energy efficiency and renewable energy at Oak Ridge.

Blue said that when Oak Ridge officials wrote a proposal last year for funding for the project, they made sure to include UMaine as a potential partner. In addition to the composites center, he said, UMaine researchers have experience working with “biological feedstocks” – the woody cellulose used in the 3-D printers process.

Even though it’s unclear how much demand for wood products will increase if the technology takes hold, any amount is good news for the state’s forest products industry, said Rosaire Pelletier, the senior forest products adviser to the last three Maine governors.

“It’s one of the pieces” that could drive more demand for wood products, Pelletier said. Maine also is researching ways to use cellulose to make fuel and to derive chemicals from wood.

“We need to be going into these areas and developing more and more” uses for wood, he said. “Everything we do to use more wood, it’s good for the industry.”

This story was updated at noon on May 9 to add Habib Dagher’s title.


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