Nearly $60 million is allocated for the University of Maine System in budget bills going through Congress, including $35 million for a new “Factory of the Future” that could allow UMaine to manufacture affordable housing with a 3D printer.
The $57.5 million is split between two appropriations bills for the current fiscal year that were released on Monday afternoon, according to a spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
While the bills still need to pass both chambers of Congress and gain President Joe Biden’s signature, they would fund significant new projects across the University of Maine System.
The most significant of the proposals is $35 million for the Factory of the Future project at UMaine’s Advanced Structures and Composites Center.
The money would allow for the expansion of the current composites laboratory with a new research facility to manufacture a variety of objects using bio-based and other recyclable materials. Artificial intelligence, 3D printers and high-performance computing will be used in these processes.
“This facility that we’re envisioning is unique globally,” said Habib Dagher, the composites center’s executive director. “There’s nothing like it right now.”
Pointing out a shortage of affordable housing available in Maine, Dagher said the project would allow the composites center to use Maine wood and 3D printing to manufacture housing. That process would allow developers to produce cheaper housing that requires less labor to produce as the construction industry nationwide experiences a labor shortage, Dagher said. There would also be less of an environmental footprint than with standard home construction, he said.
“This technology has the ability to drive the cost of housing significantly down and hopefully help us solve the housing crisis,” Dagher said.
In addition to affordable housing, work at the new addition would focus on developments in construction, transportation, boat-building and the furniture industry. Dagher said it would make construction of items such as boats more efficient than before. The center produced a 25-foot-long boat in 2019 through 3D printing.
The money for the project would likely arrive around October next year if the bills pass Congress, Dagher said, but the center is already working with firms on designs.
The composites center has received national recognition. Dagher was in Dallas on Tuesday after receiving the Academic Pioneer Award from the American Composites Manufacturing Association. He is the first recipient of the new award.
Funding for the project is split between the U.S. Department of Defense appropriations bill ($25 million) and the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bill.
Among the other projects involving Maine’s public universities are $2 million to support regional seafood systems; $2 million for using wood-fiber construction to create energy-efficient buildings; $1 million in equipment to train nurses at universities in Augusta, Fort Kent and Presque Isle in pediatric and obstetric care; $300,000 to provide small-scale agricultural producers with business education and technical assistance; and $300,000 to mitigate the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle species.
Another $6 million in the Department of Defense bill would also go to the composites center to allow its 3D printer to prototype unmanned surface vehicles.
Collins had requested funding for nine of the UMaine-related projects, her office said. Other members of Maine’s congressional delegation also requested money for UMaine-related initiatives.
“The University of Maine is at the forefront of innovative research that is powering Maine’s economy,” Collins said.
Joan Ferrini-Mundy, UMaine’s president and vice chancellor for research and innovation for the university system, said the federal funding was critical.
“Federal investment in the research enterprise we are expanding across all of our universities is driving the growth and impact of our work,” she said.