3D Printing Transforms Energy Manufacturers

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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 source critical components and tools from multiple vendors around the world based on detailed manufacturing instructions, for example, for milling aluminum. The finished parts would take six to 12 weeks to produce and then were sent to the various Vestas sites, inspected for compliance, and — once approved — put to use. Yet, some parts were not 100% to spec, resulting in costly delays. Vestas needed a better way to have the exact same part manufactured to strict specifications reliably anywhere in the world.

The solution they found was 3D printing. Each of their global facilities would have the same brand and type of industrial carbon-fiber 3D printer, a Markforged X7, with access to a secure online repository of digital part designs and detailed 3D printer settings. The program launched in 2021 and is today 3D printing more than 10,000 parts a year.

“Thanks to the repository, the Vestas team knows they will get consistent, up-to-spec parts at a moment’s notice, anywhere in the world, without the need for specialists at each global facility,” says Haight. “This has dramatically reduced shipping, freight costs, and manufacturing lead times, plus Vestas facility engineers don’t need to be experts in 3D printing.”

A critical part, such as a calibrated marking tool used in turbine blade installation, previously took weeks and thousands of dollars to produce but is now being made in only a few days for far less. Rather than milled aluminum, the tool is 3D printed using carbon fiber-reinforced nylon — Markforged’s Onyx material — resulting in parts that are 85% lighter.

The Markforged X7 has sensor technology that can monitor the shape of the part as it is being printed and compare it to the digital file. The repository of digital files that is the cornerstone of Vestas’ direct digital manufacturing program is something Markforged now plans to offer universally.

Any manufacturer can digitize their part inventory and make it available for 3D printing anywhere in the world, but, for now, limited to Markforged’s own 3D printers. The new “Digital Source” will be an online platform where OEMs upload part designs to a secure digital warehouse. Customers can then purchase licenses to 3D print parts locally. This gives customers or companies the potential to 3D print critical replacement parts on-site for same-day turnaround or access a list of vetted print service providers to order printed parts at scale.

3D Printing Innovation

At the forefront of manufacturing in the nuclear, power, and oil & gas industries is a company called IMI Critical Engineering. It produces critical flow control technologies — valves — to help control the flow of steam, gas and liquids. IMI turned to 3D printing to not only produce parts closer to wherever in the world it needed them — from Alaska to Saudi Arabia — but to reimagine its product design and services.

Like Vestas, IMI has manufacturing facilities in a dozen countries. It needed a way to produce complex metal (nickel alloy) valves for this highly regulated industry closer to the point of need. It conducted a test project to produce a commonly installed choke valve cage in six locations across the globe via a digital file sent to a 3D printer — the same brand and model of 3D printer, in this case, a Velo3D Sapphire.

The program showed that with the Velo3D software, hardware, and contract manufacturing infrastructure, the same digital print file could be printed on any Velo3D system regardless of its location in the world and produce the same end-part results.

Like Markforged, Velo3D has monitoring sensors and software that collects a trove of information during the printing, layer by layer. Called Assure, the software also generates a build report containing essential information for manufacturing compliance.

IMI’s success with 3D printing led the company to establish a new product line based on innovations in value design enabled by the technology.

“With additive manufacturing, we realized that we could make our parts smaller and more compact,” says Steve Freitas, IMI’s R&D director. “And that enabled two big things for us: Now, we could print more parts at a lower cost because additive cost varies with volume, and we could also put our technology into other suppliers’ smaller valves more easily, and that enabled our new Retrofit3D program.”

Challenges of 3D Printing Integration

Despite IMI’s success with additive manufacturing, Freitas says he’s not facing a lot of competition in the energy market yet. “For all the companies I’ve met with, including several of the major oil and gas companies, they typically have one person who’s the leader for additive technology, and they see the value, but they have a challenge to sell it into their own business.”

Especially for large companies using traditional manufacturing, even taking the time to explore a new technology can be challenging and time-consuming.

“We went through a bit of this barrier ourselves,” says Freitas, “because at first, AM was expensive and complex before it became easy, fast, and cheaper.”

Plus, additive manufacturing isn’t the right fit for every company. Freitas says that IMI makes an unusually complex valve design with intricate channels to manage vibration and liquid flows at very high, specific pressures, with a focus on upgrading customers to this more efficient product. Other companies in their market make much simpler, more standardized designs for which metal casting technology is still a good choice. “Sometimes your business model will lock you into a certain way of doing things and, potentially, prohibit your growth.”

Back at Vestas, Haight also faced initial challenges in implementing additive manufacturing.

“There are huge challenges in corporate adoption, as well as localized adoption, because when you’re trying to convince an organization to implement additive manufacturing, it’s not just at the top level, it starts at the grassroots,” says Haight.

At Vestas, Height had to champion the potential of the Markforged 3D printers to upper management while at the same time convincing the global facility managers that parts would be easy to produce.

“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.”

Adding Additive Strategically

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.

“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 casting foundry, Mulherin has already identified uses for 3D printing pattern plates and sand casting molds that will produce a “huge savings over the current tooling processes using either aluminum or in some cases, wood,” she says. Other applications of 3D printing at Hubbell will focus on fabricating more efficient parts out of electrically conductive material, including copper.

“There’s a lot of potential from both tooling and end-use parts, and we’re looking into all of those options,” says Mulherin. “There’s a lot of really strong business cases from a manufacturing point of view, in terms of cost savings, supply chain risk mitigation, tooling costs, and sustainability.”

As the new company champion of additive manufacturing at Hubbell, Mulherin says one of the biggest hurdles to adoption, especially at a company with more than 10,000 employees, is education on how to identify applications that make sense for the technology.

“We’re launching enterprise-wide training programs to educate all of the design and application engineers and product managers on identifying potential parts that could be made better, faster, or cheaper through additive manufacturing,” says Mulherin. There’s also some dissuading skepticism about the technology itself. “There are internal customers that need to understand what you’re doing just as much as the leadership.”

After education, Mulherin says the next step is to address the low-hanging fruit or things 3D printing can immediately improve. “You need two or three killer applications that you can ramp up to production and demonstrate the capabilities of the technology. Once you’ve done that, it’s going to have a huge snowball effect.”

Despite being more than a century old, Hubbell has a strong drive for innovation, Mulherin says. The new AM Center of Excellence that she will lead is tasked with enabling new applications and new designs with new technology.

“We’ll never replace traditional manufacturing,” she adds “But there are some really great places where we can complement with additive, and that’s what we’re looking to do at Hubbell.”

Hurdles & Growth Printing the Future

Although 3D printing offers many advantages in the energy sector, it also comes with challenges.

Both Freitas and Haight agree that a major hurdle today is not the 3D printer or material but the software side of the process.

At IMI the goal is to find software, perhaps AI-enabled, that would aid in the optimization of parts, making them lighter, faster to print, and fixing any potential distortion during printing. “My dream is to have a completely smart development of designs, to avoid all the back and forth, doing test builds, and having phone calls,” says Freitas. “I think there’s a big leap to the computer analytical side still to come.”

To Haight, the gap in additive manufacturing software is in digital part verification and simulation.

“There hasn’t been a lot of support from computer-aided design and engineering software makers toward initial design validations before you even manufacture that part to understand if that part can perform all of the duties it needs to,” says Haight. “If I were to look at the total additive manufacturing landscape, it’s definitely in the software that I think the most focus needs to be.”

As the technology continues to advance, its role in the energy industry is expected to expand, offering innovative solutions for various operational and maintenance challenges.

Despite the fact that Vestas’ 3D printing program is more successful than it expected, there’s plenty of room for growth, says Haight. “In a five- and 10-year timeframe, we plan to actually mobilize additive manufacturing to bring it to some of our most remote locations, basically at the base of the tower of the turbine that’s going to get used at.”

At IMI, the growth plans are to scale up the size of the parts they can 3D print as the technology matures. It also anticipates advancements in the oil and gas industry manufacturing certification process to have a clearer path forward for the use of 3D printed parts, especially 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.”

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