How 3D Printing is Revolutionizing 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 used to procure vital components and tools from multiple global vendors according to comprehensive manufacturing guidelines. A particular case was milling aluminum. However, the production of the final parts used to take between six and twelve weeks before they were distributed to various Vestas sites. There, the parts went through compliancy checks before usage. Unfortunately, they occasionally found that some parts were not completely accurate, which caused expensive setbacks. Therefore, Vestas realized that they needed a globally reliable method to manufacture duplicates of the same part with strict precision.

Vestas came up with a solution by using in-house 3D printing to create a prototype of a wind turbine lighting tip receptor. The result was that they saved weeks as opposed to machining an aluminum prototype.

The solution they adopted was 3D printing. Every one of their global locations was equipped with the same brand and model of industrial carbon-fiber 3D printer, a Markforged X7. Each facility had access to a secure online repository containing digital designs of parts and detailed 3D printer settings. They initiated the program in 2021 and have been successfully printing over 10,000 parts per year since then.

The efficiency of the repository allows the Vestas team to consistently obtain parts that are up to spec, on demand, globally, eliminating the need for specialists at each functioning site. According to Haight, this has significantly reduced shipping and freight costs, as well as manufacturing lead times. Furthermore, Vestas facility engineers are no longer required to specialize in 3D printing.

A calibrated marking tool, which is crucial for turbine blade installation, once required weeks and thousands of dollars to produce. However, it can now be made in just a few days for significantly less. Instead of using milled aluminum, the tool is 3D printed with carbon fiber-reinforced nylon – specifically, Markforged’s Onyx material. This results in parts that are 85% lighter.

Each Vestas global manufacturing location comes with a Markforged X7 carbon fiber 3D printer, which is connected to a digital parts library.

The Markforged X7 utilizes sensor technology to monitor the shape of the part as it prints, comparing it to the digital file. This digital file repository, a vital aspect of Vestas’ direct digital manufacturing program, is on Markforged’s agenda to provide universally.

A manufacturer can digitize their parts inventory and have it ready for 3D printing anywhere in the world, but as of now, it’s limited to Markforged’s own 3D printers. The forthcoming “Digital Source” will be an online platform for OEMs to upload part designs onto a secure digital storage. This enables customers to purchase licenses to 3D print parts locally, affording them the potential to 3D print important replacement parts on-site for same-day turnaround or gain access to a list of vetted print service providers and order printed parts in bulk.

The utilization of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, represents a significant paradigm shift in the range of valve replacement services that can be offered by IMI Critical Engineering.

Leading the way in manufacturing within the fields of nuclear, power, and oil & gas is a corporation known as IMI Critical Engineering. This company focuses on the creation of pivotal flow control solutions, namely valves, which are, used to manage the flow of steam, gas and liquids. IMI has found a unique application for 3D printing technology, helping them produce parts wherever they’re required across the globe—from Alaska to Saudi Arabia. It also allowed them to innovate and improve their product designs and services.

Much like Vestas, IMI operates manufacturing facilities throughout a dozen countries. Faced with the need to manufacture complex metal (specifically nickel alloy) valves for this heavily regulated industry closer to where they’re needed, IMI initiated a test project. The project aimed to manufacture a typical choke valve cage at six different locations across the globe, transmitted via digital file to a 3D printer—the same brand and model of 3D printer in each instance, specifically, a Velo3D Sapphire.

Results from the experiment revealed that, equipped with Velo3D’s software, hardware, and contract manufacturing framework, the same digital print file could be sent to any Velo3D system anywhere in the world, always yielding the same final product.

Inside the Velo3D Sapphire metal 3D printer.

Similar to Markforged, Velo3D includes monitoring sensors and software that collect a massive amount of data during printing, layer after layer. There is a software called Assure which also produces a build report filled with vital information required for manufacturing compliance.

The success of IMI with 3D printing inspired the firm to create a new product line that capitalizes on value design innovations that 3D technology makes possible.

“With additive manufacturing, we noticed that we can produce our parts smaller and more condensed,” says Steve Freitas, R&D director at IMI. “This led to significant benefits for us: first, we could print more parts at a lower expense because additive cost is volume-dependent, and second, we could integrate our technology into the smaller valves of other suppliers, which kicked off our new Retrofit3D initiative.”

Although IMI has achieved remarkable success in the field of additive manufacturing, Freitas notes the lack of competitors within the energy sphere. “In my interactions with various companies, many of which are significant players in the oil and gas sector, there’s usually one individual spearheading additive technology initiatives. They understand its potential advantages, but struggle to advocate it within their own organization,” he informs.

For sizeable corporations rooted in conventional manufacturing methods, the mere act of considering a novel technology can be daunting and incredibly time-consuming.

“Initially, we encountered a similar obstacle,” Freitas discloses, “as additive manufacturing was deemed pricey and complicated prior to it becoming accessible, prompt, and cost-effective.”

Moreover, it’s important to note that additive manufacturing may not necessarily be the go-to method for every company. According to Freitas, IMI specializes in creating intricately designed valves with complex channels that helps handle vibration and fluid flow at very high, specific pressures. Their goal is to upgrade customers to this higher efficiency product. Meanwhile, competitors in their market opt for simpler, more standardized designs where metal casting technology remains a viable option. “At times, adhering to your business model might restrict you to particular operational practices and possibly limit future development,” he says.

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

Meanwhile, at Vestas, Haight encountered some initial difficulties when introducing additive manufacturing.

“The challenges of corporate and localized adoption are significant. When you’re promoting the introduction of additive manufacturing in an organization, it doesn’t only involve the executive level, it’s a grassroots effort,” Haight explains.

At Vestas, Haight needed to sell the potential of the Markforged 3D printers to the senior management, while simultaneously reassuring the global facility managers that the components would be simple to manufacture.

“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.

At the company’s foundry, Mulherin has identified potential uses for 3D printing in the creation of pattern plates and sand casting molds, leading to significant cost savings compared to traditional methods involving aluminum or, in some cases, wood. The company is also considering further applications of 3D printing technology, such as the fabrication of more efficient, electrically conductive components made from materials like copper.

“Both tooling and end-use parts offer immense potential. We are exploring all these options”, says Mulherin. “From a manufacturing standpoint, the case for adopting this technology is compelling, offering benefits not only in terms of cost savings but also supply chain risk mitigation, tooling costs, and sustainability.”

Mulherin, the new champion for additive manufacturing within the company, believes one of the primary barriers to broader acceptance – especially within a company comprised of over 10,000 staff members – is the lack of education about suitable applications for the technology.

“We are rolling out a company-wide training initiative aimed at informing our design and application engineers, as well as our product managers, about potential parts that could be improved or produced more quickly or affordably through additive manufacturing”, Mulherin explains. However, she also notes the need to counter internal skepticism about the technology. “We need to improve understanding amongst both our internal customers and our leadership.”

After acquiring knowledge, Mulherin emphasizes that the immediate step is to tackle the readily achievable tasks or aspects that 3D printing can enhance promptly. “For you to illustrate the potential of this technology, you must need two or three major applications that you can escalate into production. Once that is achieved, you’ll witness a massive ripple effect.”

Despite its existence for over a century, Hubbell is characterized by a powerful thrust for innovation, Mulherin remarks. The newly established AM Centre of Excellence she is poised to direct is responsible for instigating new applications and unique designs using advanced technology.

“Traditional manufacturing can never be replaced,” she iterates “Nonetheless, there are numerous remarkable scenarios where we can support with additive, and that’s our target at Hubbell.”

While 3D printing presents numerous benefits in the power industry, it also accompanies challenges.

Freitas and Haight concur that the main challenge today is not the 3D printer or the material used, but rather, the software aspect of the procedure.

Jeremy Haight, who is the principal engineer of additive manufacturing and advanced concepts at Vestas, is working on evaluating the digital design of a part to be 3D printed.

The objective at IMI is to discover software, potentially even AI-empowered, that can assist in optimizing parts, making them more lightweight, quicker to print, and capable of rectifying any potential distortion during the printing. Freitas comments, “My ideal is to achieve a fully intelligent design development process, to avoid all the back and forth communication, conducting test builds, and placing phone calls. I believe there is a significant leap forward to be made on the computer analytics side.”

According to Haight, the missing link in additive manufacturing lies within the software, specifically regarding digital part verification and simulation.

“The support from creators of computer-aided design and engineering software for initial design validations before manufacturing hasn’t been abundant. Their role is crucial in understanding if a part can perform all its necessary functions.” notes Haight. “The software is where the most focus needs to be when looking at the total additive manufacturing landscape.”

The role of this advancing technology in the energy industry is only expected to increase, presenting innovative solutions to operational and maintenance challenges.

Evidently, Vestas’ 3D printing program has exceeded expectations yet Haight observes that there is ample room for growth. “We aim to mobilize additive manufacturing in our most remote locations in five to ten years, specifically at the base of the turbine that will be put into use.”

Regarding IMI, plans for growth revolve around increasing the size of the parts which can be 3D printed as the technology evolves. Additionally, there are expectations for advancements in the oil and gas industry’s manufacturing certification process. This will provide a clearer direction for the use of 3D printed parts, particularly in applications critical to safety.

Today, certifications in the oil and gas industry constrain the possible uses of additive technology. However, once these restrictions are passed, the industry will experience a proliferation of new utilities, according to Freitas. These include quicker support response during outages, more efficient spare parts, and reduced energy costs.

Mulherin from Hubbell holds an optimistic yet realistic view about what lies ahead. She cautions that initiating an additive manufacturing operation won’t be a walk in the park. The technology is still in its infancy and lacks the well-established understanding like CNC machining and injection molding. Challenges are inevitable, but having a designated budget, internal backing from key constituents, and appropriate expectations will help realise the potential gains.

Original source


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