The Transformation of the Wind Energy Sector through 3D Printing

The growing use of 3D printing is spreading across a variety of sectors, with more and more companies recognizing its benefits in manufacturing processes. The energy sector is no exception. According to a report from Additive Manufacturing Research, the 3D printing market in this sector is expected to reach €17 billion by 2032. 3D printing is notably expected to play a crucial role in the development and maintenance of essential wind energy equipment.

Market players are increasingly recognizing the advantages of 3D printing in the field of renewable energies, particularly wind power. This technology offers the possibility of reducing production costs, while allowing size customization to the specific needs of each location. What’s more, the challenges posed by traditional methods of manufacturing wind turbines are well known: blades are generally made from glass-fiber reinforced plastic, a material that is difficult to recycle.

Photo Credits: GE General Electric

The 3D Printing Processes and Materials Used

Among the 3D printing techniques most commonly used in the wind energy sector, FDM technology has a prominent place. This method is frequently chosen for manufacturing prototypes and parts. Another popularly used technique is SLS with materials like nylon. Benefits of this approach include the robustness of prototypes and finished parts, along with the capability to make wind energy components, especially suitable for small parts. Binder jetting is also regularly employed.

DMLS has been applied in the wind energy sector for 3D printing highly precise and intricate metal parts, be it prototypes, final components or repairs for existing wind turbines. Giants in the territory, like Siemens Gamesa Renewable Energy and Vestas, have already employed it to manufacture and optimize their turbines. The wind turbine industry also habitually uses materials such as PLA and ABS for manufacturing prototypes and housings for wind turbines. Materials such as nylon, polyamide, metal powders, glass, carbon fibers, and resins have also been utilized in 3D printing to cater to the industry’s particular demands.

The Advantages and Limitations of 3D Printing in Wind Energy

As discussed before, 3D printing in the wind energy sector is especially suitable for prototyping, owing to its ability to manufacture parts speedily and economically, thereby fostering innovation in the field. Moreover, 3D printing can fabricate more intricate shapes than traditional methods, enhancing the efficiency of rotor blades. This was put into practice in a research venture at the Technical University of Berlin, where researchers managed to print an entire wind turbine in a single piece using the BigRep 3D printer.

Custom-made wind turbine parts can be designed specifically for customers to ensure they’re perfectly suited to the location of the wind turbines. The use of 3D printing allows the production of components right on site, offering more flexibility to continuously adjust molds and components. This way, the cost of transporting molded parts is reduced, thus simplifying the supply of new printed molds in a quick and economical manner. In the USA, limitations on transportation impose length limits of 53 to 62 m for rotor blades due to current rail and road infrastructure. As such, 3D printing, potentially combined with robotics, holds great potential for on-site manufacturing, especially for producing larger and more powerful equipment.

Considering the extensive lead times connected with traditional production methods, 3D printing also opens up the possibility of manufacturing replacement parts faster and when required. This diminishes ordering and manufacturing times and eliminates the necessity to consistently maintain high inventory levels. Furthermore, this technology can create lightweight, complex structures for wind turbines, contributing to a reduction in their overall weight.

However, this is not to say that there won’t be any changes. While 3D printing provides benefits in terms of reducing prototype production costs, the initial investment in 3D printers and the required materials is quite high. This may lead to additional costs when using this methodology. Additionally, meeting the strict requirements of standards and certifications when using 3D printing can often be challenging, which may also result in extra expenses.

Despite existing limitations on the size of wind turbine components that can be 3D printed, few projects like the ACC have managed to print exceptionally large parts for wind turbines. As experience in the field of 3D printing for wind energy is relatively new, it’s yet to be determined if 3D-printed parts will maintain reliable and consistent properties over an extended period.

3D Printing Applications in Wind Turbine Manufacturing

3D printing has a vital role in multiple areas of the wind turbine production process. Specifically, additive manufacturing is employed in the making of both components and moulds, along with the prototyping of new elements. This technique permits quick prototype development for testing and refining before their utilisation in large-scale production. For instance, the US-based firm General Electric (GE) started 3D printing significant wind turbine parts in 2019 and inaugurated a 3D printing facility in the USA in 2021, designated for research. GE has also harnesses 3D printing for the construction of lighter turbine blades for its GE9X engines.

Another company leveraging 3D printing in this industry is the start-up Orbital Composites, specialising in producing turbines, wind turbine blades, foundations, and towers using on-site, high-throughput, large-scale additive manufacturing. Within this project, Orbital Composites aims to demonstrate and verify the efficacy of its 3D printing robots in manufacturing wind turbine blades. The firm also has plans to develop systems capable of 3D printing wind blades surpassing 100 meters in length, and offshore wind turbines directly on ships in the ocean.

To achieve these goals, the start-up is collaborating with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and the University of Maine, whose research will be discussed in a later section. Orbital Composites has already received $4 million in financial support from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE).

Research Into 3D Printing in the Wind Energy Sector

Researchers at several universities around the world are exploring the application of 3D printing in the field of wind energy, such as the project at the Technical University of Berlin entitled “3D Printing Powers Wind Turbine Research”. Led by Immanuel Dorn, a technical engineer, and Sascha Krumbein, a master’s student in engineering who is also an instructor on the project, the team is investigating the optimization of rotor blades using 3D printing. Their work includes testing different blade configurations in a large wind tunnel, where they evaluate the performance of rotors subjected to multiple production iterations with various 3D printed materials. The researchers began with aerodynamic design, then moved on to structural design, involving filling and material selection, requiring several iteration cycles to adjust and adapt the materials used. Finally, the team conducted “real-life” aerodynamic tests in their wind tunnel, including crash tests, to assess the performance of the blades.

Many American universities are also involved in research in this field. For instance, Purdue University in Indiana, working jointly with RCAM Technologies and Floating Wind Technology Company, is researching the creation of more economical concrete turbine anchors and structures, and at the same time, investigating additive tool manufacturing for wind turbine rotor blades. This project, carried out in partnership with various companies and financially backed by the US Department of Energy (DOE), with a funding of $2.8 million, intends to expedite tool production and bring down the cost of the end products through 3D printing.

In any event, it’s evident that the role of 3D printing in wind energy is increasingly significant, displaying immense potential for innovation and enhanced efficiency. Companies and research institutions globally are acknowledging the advantages of this technology and investing in the growth and utilization of additive manufacturing methods.

The numerous applications of 3D printing stretch from the fabrication of prototypes and parts to the production of entire wind turbines. They offer flexibility and adaptability that traditional manufacturing techniques cannot provide. Even though hurdles persist, the path is paved for the utilization of 3D printing in wind energy to revolutionize the industry sustainably and further enhance the accessibility to clean energy.

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