Printing Energy – How Additive Manufacturing can Boot the Wind Energy Industry

It was a matter of time, until additive manufacturing and alternative energies cross paths and the moment has finally come. The technology will simplify the manufacturing of large wind turbines and reduce costs, time-effort and emissions.

When two of the fastest growing and rapidly advancing industries are merged, the result is highly promising. Just imagine additive manufacturing being combined with the production of alternative energies! In fact, it’s happening right now. 3D printing finds increasing usage in the wind energy industry, because it can speed up part and component development and reduce material resources, as well as gas emissions, since the parts can be printed on-site and must not be transported. Some of the opportunities for additive manufacturing in the wind industry are perfectly obvious while others might surprise you.

Everything On-Site

The most obvious but still highly efficient implementation for additive manufacturing is printing wind turbine components on-site. Wind turbines can be found in almost any landscape, at times even at hard to reach places. Hence, the transportation is not only environmentally harmful due to high emissions, but can also be really challenging. A 3D printer would enable the production of wind turbine parts that are designed for the unique needs of the resources of a particular location. Also, this method would simplify the testing of new blade prototypes in realistic wind turbine settings. 3D printing those large parts, furthermore, reduces the waste that is produced during the manufacturing process. Instead of cutting away excess material, only the required material is applied layer by layer to the object.

Fix What’s Broken

Not only the production of wind turbine components can be done with the help of 3D printing, but also the repair or replacement of parts is made much easier and does not require the relevant parts to be removed and transported somewhere else.

The Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas sees „a clear potential in the medium term“ within spare parts and repair. They claim:

„With more than 68GW under service and turbines installed in 75 countries, often in remote areas, a technology to produce and distribute spare parts locally could potentially help reduce cost and downtime on our customers‘ turbines.“

Reducing Costs and Time

A classic field of application of additive manufacturing is the production of moulds. The problem of creating one is that usually a so-called plug is needed: a full-size representation of the final product, which is then used as a core around which the cast is shaped. This labour-intensive and costly step is eliminated when there is a large-scale 3D printer available.

The mould can be entirely 3D-printed and the designers can even incorporate innovative features like air ducts. If a new one is needed, the digital design can be easily changed and it’s freshly printed out. At the moment, such large-scale printers are still quite expensive and rather slow, but as progress in this field is rapid, it won’t take long for this to change. In about two years, there is a wide and high additive manufacturing machine planned that’ll be able to print parts up to 14 metres long and 7 metres wide. This will make printing of gearboxes, drivetrains and pitch systems for wind turbines possible. Hopefully, we will see one or another prototype at drupa 2020!

Do you see other ways in which the alternative energy industry can profit from additive manufacturing? What will be the next step?