3D printing large components for the offshore wind industry

Large components for wind turbines or aircraft for example are often expensive to produce because of their uniqueness. Increasingly larger components can be achieved with additive manufacturing, to which extra functionality can also be added. Prototyping and production are therefore simpler and cheaper.

We recently published an article about additive manufacturing in the building industry, in which printing ever larger construction components is no longer exceptional. Other industries can also profit from this trend and benefit from the advantages offered. The automotive and aerospace industries for example, and also tests carried out for renewable energy sectors for both on and offshore wind generation, and tidal energy are all looking promising. 

Demonstrations have shown that additive manufacturing can lead to cost-savings and also makes it easier (and cheaper) to add more functionality to components. This results in the extra costs associated with 3D printing being compensated and the full picture working out cheaper. 

One early example of this is the 3D printing of a jig for the turbine blades. These components are always expensive to produce because of their uniqueness. Alternative sources of energy have traditionally had to deal with high costs, thereby often making them less attractive than their fossil fuel counterparts. Prototyping and development costs for wind turbines can be reduced with additive manufacturing according to the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), part of the US Department of Energy. 

Lower development and prototyping costs

Wind turbine blades produced for research purposes can easily be more than 12 metres in length. This is why the AMO, together with a number of research and industrial partners, started manufacturing jigs made from 3D printed sections almost two metres long that are used for making complete blades. 

Switching over to 3D printing must make it possible to reduce costs and energy consumption associated with prototyping and manufacturing wind turbines. Moreover, 3D technologies should provide access to production methods that create less waste, have shorter lead times and offer more flexibility at the design stage. Apart from that, the printers are increasing in size and so the opportunities are even greater. 

Of course projects like this one require larger 3D printing capacity and the AMO team managed to locate it at the Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF) at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Tennessee, USA), which has a Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) 3D printer. The equipment is 500 to 1000 times faster than most other industrial 3D printers and has a building capacity that is many times greater. 

Although this type of 3D printer is not quite capable of working at the actual dimensions required, it does provide a realistic picture of how to take on such projects in practice. First of all a CAD model of the blade was designed: in principle a typical blade design from which a jig was made and cut into 3D printable sections, complete with assembly holes and discharge ducts for the hot air. Sections measuring almost two metres were then printed. 

These sections were then given a glass fibre laminated layer and smoothed off. Each jig segment was placed in a frame with a hot air blower, temperature control and thermocouples. The innovative technology using hot air saved energy and rendered the labour-intensive step of manually installing the heater wires unnecessary, which is traditionally embedded into the mould.  Moreover, the air blowers can be reused for new jigs in future. Once assembled, the gigantic 3D printed jig had an extremely uniform surface, perfect for manufacturing wind turbine blades at a much lower cost than possible when using the traditional production methods. Various blades were produced during the research using this 3D printed jig.

(Source : 3ders) 

Read more on Techniline (in Dutch/French)

Offshore and Sirris

The offshore energy sectors can call on Sirris and benefit from their various areas of expertise. There’s the OWI-Lab, the R&D&Innovation platform that bring together companies as well as researchers to carry out specific work in the form of projects and infrastructure. With support from Vlaio (Vlaamse Agentschap Innoveren en Ondernemen) an Innovative Company Network (IBN) for Offshore Energy has currently been set up. This means intensification of support and thematic expansion of ‘blue energy’ (wind and wave & tidal integration via Gen4Wave - Ghent University). Further information here

Component manufacturers of blades for example, can also call on help from the experts. With the AM team offering support for the development of jigs, the SLC-Lab is the place for innovations in making and using composite materials. 

(source of photo at top: Meygen-tidal project in collaboration with the Belgian DEME)