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An Inside Look at the World‘s Largest 3D Printer

As 3D printing has grown in popularity in recent years, these amazing machines have gotten bigger and bigger. But one 3D printer stands above the rest – a behemoth capable of printing objects larger than a car! Housed at the University of Maine, this massive printer is breaking new ground and revealing the future potential of 3D printing on a grand scale. Let‘s take a closer look at this huge 3D printer and see what it can do.

The Rise of 3D Printing

First, some background. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a process of making solid objects by depositing material layer-by-layer based on a digital 3D model. Interest and adoption of 3D printing has skyrocketed in the past decade. Global spending on 3D printers reached $11 billion in 2017 and is projected to hit $37 billion by 2024, according to industry research firm Canalys.

As the technology has evolved, 3D printers have expanded in size and capabilities. Printers went from small machines printing with plastics to industrial printers printing metals and other structural materials. The build volumes of 3D printers expanded from just a few cubic inches to multiple cubic feet.

Larger build areas enabled 3D printing of bigger objects. But most 3D printers still max out at relatively small final prints. The University of Maine‘s massive 3D printer breaks that mold and shows just how big additive manufacturing can go.

Printer Size Comparison
Print Bed Dimensions 100 ft x 22 ft x 10 ft
Object Capacity Larger than a city bus
Printer Height Over 3 stories tall
Printer Weight 9,000 lb

A 3D Printer Like No Other

The University of Maine 3D printer is an absolute giant capable of fabricating objects larger than an SUV. It was designed and built by the University in partnership with industrial 3D printer manufacturer Ingersoll Machine Tools. The total cost was around $2.5 million USD.

The printer‘s gargantuan size is evident at first glance. It stands over 20 feet tall and weighs a staggering 9,000 lb. But even more impressive are the printer‘s build volume capabilities. It possesses one of the largest print beds in the world at 100 ft long by 22 ft wide by 10 ft high.

To put that into perspective, it can print an object over 3x longer than a semi-trailer truck and taller than a double decker bus! The print bed volume is a massive 22,000 cubic feet – nearly double that of Ingersoll‘s next largest 33-ft printer.

According to Dr. Habib Dagher, Executive Director of the UMaine Advanced Structures and Composites Center, a key design focus was maximizing print size while keeping precision high. The printer can achieve a precision of just 6 thousandths of an inch (0.006 in) when laying down material. This allows for intricate designs and complex internal structures within large printed elements.

The printer extrudes material through a print nozzle at a rate of 500 lb per hour and a maximum speed of 500 ft per minute. Despite the high-volume flow rate, the accuracy is not sacrificed.

Printing the World‘s Largest Boat

In 2019, the University of Maine 3D printer was put to the test by fabricating an entire 25-foot, 5,000 lb boat in just 3 days. Dubbed 3Dirigo, the vessel was printed using a composite of wood fiber and recyclable plastics developed at UMaine.

3Dirigo provided a striking demonstration of the printer‘s capabilities. Dr. Dagher called it a "historic accomplishment" that "breaks the barriers of traditional manufacturing." The boat was printed in a single piece without any assembly – essentially sailing off the print bed once fabrication finished.

Printing the boat as a unified whole reduced labor costs and construction complexity compared to traditional manufacturing. It also enabled a specialized boat design tailored for stability and efficiency. 3Dirigo could preview the future of boat construction through on-demand printing of custom maritime vessels.

Boat Size 3Dirigo (3D Printed) Traditional
Length 25 ft 25 ft
Weight 5,000 lb 5,000 lb
Build Time 72 hours 4-12 weeks
Assembly Required? No Yes

Engineering the Ideal Print Material

A key innovation contributing to the printer‘s large size and high structural integrity is the specially engineered print material. Traditional small-scale 3D printers print using plastic filaments, which lack the strength to compose big functional objects. The UMaine team instead formulated a wood composite print material tailored for their mega-sized printer.

This composite consists of Cellulose nano-fibers (CNF) extracted from wood bound together with a recycled plastic polymer resin. Wood CNF provides impressive strength, stiffness, and density properties similar to aluminum alloys. The cellulose strands are sourced from sustainable forests and pulped and dried to transform into a print-ready feedstock.

CNF accounted for 50% of 3Dirigo‘s print resin. Recycled plastics made up the other half, allowing reuse of plastic waste in 3D printing. This formula achieved a material over 3x stiffer and stronger than typical 3D printed plastics, according to UMaine testing.

By pairing wood fibers with recycled polymers, the engineers created a sustainable print material high-performance enough for large-scale additive manufacturing.

Unlocking New Opportunities with Large-Format Printing

3D printing inherently provides benefits like design flexibility, customization, consolidation of parts, and on-demand local production. Scaling up to large format expands the applications where these benefits can be realized.

The University of Maine printer unlocks new possibilities across boatbuilding, construction, infrastructure, and advanced manufacturing. Any industry using large machined parts or fiber-reinforced composites could benefit. Dr. Dagher believes their large 3D printer "opens the door to a new world of options".

Some potential applications include:

  • Boats & Maritime Vessels – Construct custom boats, yachts, and ships on demand with 3D printing near waterways and harbors
  • Buildings & Infrastructure – Print walls, beams, pipes, platforms, and other structural components on construction sites to reduce material costs
  • Transportation – Manufacture vehicles, planes, and cargo storage optimized for space, fuel efficiency, and durability
  • Military Assets – Securely and rapidly produce critical defense and humanitarian relief assets onsite rather than rely on vulnerable supply lines
  • Space Exploration – Autonomously fabricate habitats, storage tanks, rovers, and other structures for deep space missions
  • Disaster Relief – Quickly deploy large 3D printers via truck or airlift to fabricate shelters, watercraft, and supplies in disaster zones

These applications demonstrate the technology‘s potential to transform how we build large-scale systems and respond to infrastructure and humanitarian needs.

Pushing the Boundaries of 3D Printing

Other organizations are also developing super-sized 3D printers to explore large-format additive manufacturing.

Companies like Cincinnati Inc., Thermwood, and Titan Robotics manufacture metal 3D printers with build volumes up to 35 cubic feet. Autodesk and Vestas partnered to build a 20 foot tall printer to fabricate wind turbine molds. BeAM in France operates metal printers building parts up to 24 feet long.

The University of Maine printer stands above other massive 3D printers in maximum object size and the move towards structural, sustainable print materials. Their printer uniquely combines vast build volume and precision with wood composite print media enabling structural integrity.

These capabilities push additive manufacturing into new territories and brings 3D printing closer to advanced manufacturing scales. Further developing supersized 3D printers will empower industries to realize the benefits of digital fabrication at new levels.

Conclusion: A New Era of Digital Manufacturing

The University of Maine‘s 3D printer is a disruptive technology pioneering the use of additive manufacturing at a grand scale. The printer‘s build volume paired with advanced wood composite print media enables fabrication of objects larger than ever before.

This unlocks new digital design and manufacturing potential for many industries. 3D printing of boats, buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure components can now be done on-demand where needed rather than requiring complex logistics. Components can also be printed to exact customized specifications rather than relying on one-size-fits-all parts.

There is still room for improvement in print speed, precision, and material options. But the UMaine printer provides a glimpse of the future – one where 3D printing technology transforms how we design, build, and distribute large functional objects on a sustainable, localized basis. Other organizations are following their lead in developing supersized printers to further push the boundaries.

We are just beginning to grasp the possibilities of large-format additive manufacturing. But this humble 3D printer in Maine highlights the vast potential 3D printing has to disrupt construction, manufacturing, and engineering in the 21st century.