Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Fiberglass Layup: 3D Printed Functional Boat Hull and Ping Pong Paddle

I don’t usually write about applications in this blog, but I found this one interesting and would like to know if anyone can expand upon its use case. I’ve been doing new product development since the mid-80’s (where did the time go?) and I’ve seen firsthand just about every fabrication method available for just about any material or product.

One that I have some experience with is fiberglass (or other cloth and resin) layup. I have seen boat hulls being removed from their mold in the factory and I’ve done my fair share of repair work on my own boat. Scanning the large array of products on the market today, you can see examples of this method used in aftermarket automotive products, consumer products and many others. These materials can be laid into a mold and removed upon cure or laid directly on the part to form a composite (such as in repair work).

An example I’m familiar with in the composite category is the glassing of a wooden boat. This is a method of waterproofing and strengthening a wooden hull, deck, or structure by coating it in resin soaked glass cloth. The wetted out fiberglass becomes transparent and the natural wood is visible beneath. Wood boat purists might cringe, but for those looking for the look and feel of real wood with the low maintenance of fiberglass, this is a practical solution.

So I wasn’t totally surprised when a colleague here at Z Corp showed me the printed model of a boat he designed and built. I’ve seen pictures of the finished boat and it’s beautiful. What did surprise me was that he had fiberglassed the bottom of the printed model. Why? I have no idea. But it made a water-tight, tough, thin walled structure.

As with many fabrication techniques, material properties can be enhanced through some type of modification. Heat treatment of metals; adding fiberglass, talk or carbon to plastic; and laminating wood products, are all examples of this. 3D printed materials are no different. They can be enhanced using similar techniques.

A few years ago, I designed a ping pong paddle and 3D printed it on a Z Corp ZPrinter. I liked the design - the paddle was usable, but I considered it a prototype. When I saw the boat model, I decided to re-design the ping pong paddle, making it super thin and light, and adding a very thin layer of fiberglass to the outer surface. The result was better than I expected. This paddle is lighter than a store-bought paddle and just as tough.

Here’s the thing that surprised me the most. In all my years involved in new product development, I have only come across a few examples where a fiber-cloth and resin are used as part of a composite with the original shape still encased. So, my questions are: what other products are made this way? What materials are used and what is the final product? I am really curious to know what people are familiar with and doing in this area.

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