Why Additive Is Positive: The Benefits of 3D Printing in the Power Industry

Peter Kelly-Detwiler

Additive manufacturing holds great promise for the electric power industry. Here's how.

Additive manufacturing has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of the power generation industry, accelerating and changing the way OEMs design new technologies like complex turbine parts and wind blades, and enabling faster repairs by allowing technicians to print replacement parts in the field.

Printing Your Way Into the Energy Future

Additive manufacturing is the process of using software and 3D printers to make things by depositing material layer upon layer. The process uses a variety of materials, ranging from simple plastics to sophisticated alloys. In contrast to the current manufacturing process, which involves either casting or removing pieces from larger, raw blocks of material, this new technology prints in layers, using only the necessary material, to precisely form the desired shape.

Advantages of the Additive Manufacturing Process

Although the technology hasn't yet been widely adopted, it's clear that it offers numerous advantages.

It can speed up design processes, for starters. The technology is already being used to print miniature molds for smaller prototype wind blades that can be tested in wind tunnels, reducing mold construction times by 35 percent, according to Wind Power Monthly. It also allows engineers to rapidly develop and test new concepts for gas turbines, such as cooling features that can improve efficiencies and create substantial savings, according to PEI.

Printing can also facilitate the creation of new materials, such as hybrids of carbon and glass for wind blades, with the potential to print different materials into different parts of the blade. New alloys are being investigated for incorporation into turbines. In the future, a single part may also be printed from multiple alloys. OEMs could create a turbine blade with blended alloys, designing one end for heat resistance and the other for strength, according to the MIT Technology Review.

This approach can also promote the development of previously unattainable geometries, leading to lighter components and resulting in increased efficiencies.

Finally, it can centralize the design process while allowing actual printing to occur closer to sites (or even on location, such as at large wind farms with multiple turbines). This can shorten repair cycles considerably. It's even possible that the process could be used to manufacture parts that are no longer being made, by scanning the part and reverse engineering the additive manufacturing process to make a new part, Wind Power Monthly adds.

This 3D printing technology is already in use in the power sector today. Turbine manufacturers have been running actual parts under actual operating pressures and loads. In some instances, parts are already operating for thousands of hours.

In other cases, OEMs are using the technology to transfer and apply more advanced H-class turbine technologies onto the installed turbine base—including older E-class machines—helping improve competitive positions in power markets. In yet other instances, the repair cycle now includes use of this additive approach to upgrade machines, transforming older variant parts into the latest versions—a previously impossible feat.

Today's Limitations, Tomorrow's Possibilities

Today's 3D printing technology is still in its relative infancy. Size, speed, and cost are all constraining factors. Printers are still small, limiting the size of parts that can be made. The biggest printers are still only capable of making things about 6 meters long and 2.5 meters wide, according to Wind Power Monthly, and the largest machines utilizing laser and powder alloys are only 1 square meter in size. The technology is also somewhat costly; it's currently used mostly for complex geometries where multiple individual parts were previously required, or the pieces simply could not be made. Meanwhile, compared with traditional manufacturing, the printing process is still relatively slow.

However, newer and faster machines will be developed, and costs are coming down as more players enter the game. As OEMs gain experience with the technology, it's also becoming clear that the way designers think is actually changing. The additive manufacturing process has largely been viewed as a tool to reduce manufacturing time and costs—while reducing the number of overall parts—but designers are now adopting a more holistic view. This evolving mindset embraces additive manufacturing as a technology that can revolutionize the entire process of design and creation, facilitating the development of new, organic, and lightweight shapes; revolutionary cooling designs; and geometries that were previously impossible.

It does not require a huge stretch of the imagination to foresee a future energy world that embraces this new technology at multiple levels, where design iterations and testing occur nearly overnight, rapid advances in complex geometries lead to new efficiency gains, and generators become increasingly more durable and efficient. This revolution is just getting started.


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