3D Printing Revolution: Transforming Energy Manufacturing from Turbines to Valves


Vestas is the largest maker of wind turbines in the world.

Some of the world’s largest and most advanced manufacturers in oil, gas, electric, and wind are embracing 3D printing’s ability to deliver critical parts anywhere in the world faster and more efficiently than traditional manufacturing methods in a effort to cut costs, spur innovation, and boost sustainability.

Case in point: Vestas, the world’s largest wind energy company, designs, manufactures, installs, and services wind turbines in 87 countries. For this multinational, turning to 3D printing custom parts, specialized tools, and prototypes in-house has revolutionized their operations, according to Jeremy Haight, principal engineer of additive manufacturing and advanced concepts at Vestas.

“We launched a pilot 3D printing program, and we saw genuine ROI within about six months. It performed far better than we even thought it would,” says Haight.

The company once relied on numerous vendors globally to receive vital components and appliances based on exhaustive manufacturing guidelines, such as those for milling aluminum. The processed parts would take six to twelve weeks for completion and then transported to various Vestas sites, checked for standard compliance, and then, once approved, used. Nevertheless, some articles were not 100% according to specifications, which led to expensive delays. Vestas needed a more reliable method of manufacturing identical parts with strict specifications worldwide.

Vestas used 3D printing to create a prototype of a wind turbine lighting tip receptor in-house, which saved weeks in comparison to creating an aluminum prototype.

The resolution they discovered was 3D printing. All of their international facilities would possess the same brand and model of industrial carbon-fiber 3D printer, a Markforged X7, with entry to a secure online repository of digital component designs and detailed 3D printer settings. This program began in 2021 and today produces more than 10,000 parts annually through 3D printing.

“The Vestas group is assured they will receive consistent, up-to-standard parts at a moment’s notice, worldwide, without the need of specialists at every global facility, thanks to the repository,” says Haight. “This has dramatically decreased shipping, freight charges, and manufacturing lead times. Also, Vestas facility engineers are not required to be expert in 3D printing.”

A previously expensive and time-consuming part used for turbine blade installation, such as a calibrated marking tool, can now be produced more quickly and cost-effectively. The tool is created with 3D printing technology, using carbon fiber-reinforced nylon – specifically, Markforged’s Onyx material – instead of milled aluminum. This results in parts that are 85% lighter.

Every global manufacturing facility at Vestas comes equipped with a Markforged X7 carbon fiber 3D printer that links to a digital library of parts.

The Markforged X7 utilizes sensor technology to monitor the form of the part as it prints and compares it to the digital file. Markforged has plans to universally provide the repository of digital files, which serves as the mainstay of Vestas’ direct digital manufacturing program.

A manufacturer can digitalize their parts inventory, making it available worldwide for 3D printing; though, currently, it is only available for Markforged’s own 3D printers. “Digital Source,” the upcoming online platform, allows OEMs to upload part designs to a protected digital warehouse. Customers can then buy licenses to 3D print parts locally, presenting the opportunity to print crucial replacement parts on-site for same-day results or access a registry of approved print service providers to order parts printed in bulk.

The game-changing shift in valve replacement services possible at IMI Critical Engineering is the use of additive manufacturing or 3D printing.

IMI Critical Engineering, a company at the forefront of manufacturing in industries like nuclear, power, and oil & gas, manufactures critical flow control technologies like valves. These help in controlling the flow of steam, gas and liquids. IMI opted for 3D printing, to not only produce parts closer to wherever they are needed in the world – from Alaska to Saudi Arabia, but also to overhaul its product design and services.

Similar to Vestas, IMI has manufacturing facilities scattered across a dozen countries. A solution was required to produce complex metal (nickel alloy) valves that meet the stringent regulations of the industry, closer to the point of need. A test project was conducted to manufacture a widely installed choke valve cage in six different locations worldwide through a digital file sent to a 3D printer. The same brand and model of the 3D printer, a Velo3D Sapphire, was used.

It was found that the Velo3D software, hardware, and contract manufacturing infrastructure can print the same digital print file on any Velo3D system, irrespective of its geographical location, and produce identical end-part results.

Inside the Velo3D Sapphire metal 3D printer.

Similar to Markforged, Velo3D incorporates monitoring sensors and software that gathering an array of data during the printing process, every single layer. This comes under a system known as Assure, which also produces a build report housing vital information necessary for ensuring compliance in manufacturing.

The success of IMI with 3D printing has driven the company to spawn a fresh product line, rooted in value design innovations made viable by this technology.

“Through using additive manufacturing, we discovered that we could construct our components in a smaller and more compact format,” explains Steve Freitas, the R&D director at IMI. “This revelation brought two significant advantages to us: Firstly, we could now print an increased number of parts at a lesser cost due to additive costing being volume-dependent. Secondly, we found it easier to implement our technology into other suppliers’ smaller valves, which in turn paved the way for our new Retrofit3D program.”

Even with the success of IMI in the world of additive manufacturing, Freitas notes that there hasn’t been much competition in the energy market so far. He explains, “The majority of companies I have interacted with, including several big oil and gas firms, usually have a single person heading up additive technology. They understand its utility, but struggle to pitch its benefits to their business.”

For large corporations that rely on conventional manufacturing processes, even considering a new technology can be a strenuous and time-consuming task.

“We too, at one point, were in the same spot,” Freitas admits, “In the beginning, AM was not only costly but highly complex to implement until it eventually became manageable, fast, and cost-effective.”

Nonetheless, additive manufacturing is not always the best solution for every organization, as per Freitas. He divulges that IMI creates a notably complex valve design with intricate channels to monitor vibration and monitor flows at very precise, high pressures, with an emphasis on transitioning clients to this more efficient product. On the other hand, some competitors in their market produce simpler, more generic designs for which metallurgical casting is still a good fit. He articulates, “In certain cases, your business model may restrict you to a specific way of operating, which could potentially hinder your growth.”

At a recent additive manufacturing trade show, Velo3D demonstrated the complexity and size of IMI Critical Engineering’s 3D-printed valve.

Meanwhile at Vestas, Haight confronted initial challenges when introducing additive manufacturing.

“The difficulties in gaining acceptance within a company are enormous, both at a central and local level, because to persuade an organization to embrace additive manufacturing, the effort must not only come from the top level, but also starts from the grassroots,” remarks Haight.

At Vestas, Height had to advocate for the potential of the Markforged 3D printers to top management, while simultaneously reassuring the global facility managers of the simplicity in producing parts.

“We’re not a 3D printing company; we manufacture wind turbines, and [upper management] didn’t want their people spending all of their time trying to fuss around with 3D printers,” notes Haight. “So we assured them that, no, that’s not the case.”

In the electric utility industry, the 135-year-old electric product manufacturer Hubbell just hired its first director of additive manufacturing; industry veteran Kristin Mulherin, who will oversee the implementation of a wide range of 3D printing technologies across the $5B organization.

Distributed manufacturing with local 3D printing could enable Hubbell Power Systems to store fewer spare parts at its 400,000-square-foot distribution center in Missouri.

“Hubbell is investing a lot into additive manufacturing, and they’re doing it the right way,” says Mulherin. The company is launching a 3D Printing Center of Excellence that will house its internal R&D to identify applications within the company that are ideal for additive manufacturing. Once these applications are developed, Mulherin and her team will either oversee production at the new center or distribute manufacturing to the business units. Hubbell has roughly 10 times the number of manufacturing facilities as Vestas or IMI, mostly in the U.S.

3D printing pattern plates and sand casting molds are being utilized at the company’s casting foundry by Mulherin, which she states will result in significant cost reductions over traditional tooling methods. Hubbell will also adopt 3D printing to manufacture more efficient, copper-based conductive materials.

“From both tooling and end-use parts, the potential is vast. We are investigating all possibilities,” stated Mulherin. “From a manufacturing perspective, there are numerous compelling business cases, including cost savings, risk mitigation in the supply chain, tooling expenses, and sustainability.”

Mulherin, the new Hubbell additive manufacturing advocate, identifies education as one of the greatest obstacles to adoption, especially in a company employing over 10,000 people. The challenge lies in recognizing the most beneficial technological applications.

She says, “To help all design and application engineers and product managers recognize potential parts that could be improved, made faster, or cheaper by additive manufacturing, we’re unveiling company-wide training programs.” It’s crucial to demystify the technology, though. “Internal customers need to comprehend what you’re doing just as much as the leadership does.”

Post-education, Mulherin posits that the subsequent move involves targeting the accessible benefits, those elements 3D printing can promptly enhance. “To illustrate the potential of this technology, you require a couple of significant uses that you can expedite to production. Completing this will generate substantial momentum.”

Even though Hubbell is over a century old, it possesses a vibrant enthusiasm for novelty, Mulherin comments. She will be at the helm of the newly-formed AM Centre of Excellence, a unit instituted with the purpose of fostering new uses and design perspectives through fresh technology.

“Traditional manufacturing will always have its place,” she supplements. “However, there are multiple exceptional areas wherein we can supplement with additive. That is our goal at Hubbell.”

Despite the multitude of benefits offered by 3D printing within the energy domain, it does come accompanied by its own set of hurdles.

Freitas and Haight both concur that the main obstacle today is not the 3D printer or the material, but rather the software aspect of the process.

Jeremy Haight, the chief engineer of additive manufacturing and advanced concepts at Vestas, is in the process of assessing the digital design of a part that is to be 3D printed.

The objective at IMI is to identify software, possibly AI-enabled, that could assist in optimizing parts, lightening them, speeding up their printing, and rectifying any potential distortion during printing. “My aspiration is to completely smarten up the design development process, to avoid the constant back-and-forths, test builds, and phone calls,” Freitas articulates. “In my view, there’s still a significant leap to be made on the computer analytical side.”

In Haight’s perspective, the additive manufacturing software is lacking in digital part verification and simulation.

“The lack of assistance from creators of CAD and engineering software hesitant on initial design validations is a concern,” states Haight. “By studying the whole scenario of additive manufacturing, it’s clear that the main focus should be on the software.”

The energy sector is likely to broaden its utilization of this evolving technology, presenting inventive resolutions for a variety of operational and maintenance issues.

Vestas’ 3D printing program has exceeded expectations, but there’s still a lot to explore, according to Haight. “In the next five to ten years, we aim to introduce additive manufacturing at some of our most isolated locales, primarily at the base of the turbine tower.”

IMI plans to scale up the size of parts that can be 3D printed as the technology advances. The company also expects the manufacturing certification process in the oil and gas industry to become more straight-forward, especially for the usage of 3D printed parts in safety-critical applications.

Today, oil and gas industry certifications limit the applications of additive technology, but once that hurdle is overcome, Freitas says the industry will have a new range of applications. “It will open up a lot of benefits to the industry in terms of faster turnaround support for outages, better supportive spares, and lower energy costs.”

At Hubbell, Mulherin has measured optimism about the future. “Don’t underestimate how difficult it’s going to be to set up an additive manufacturing operation,” she says. “It is still new, and it’s not as well understood as CNC machining and injection molding, and there will be hurdles. But it will pay off if you have a budget, an internal support system from key stakeholders, and the right expectations.”

Original source


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