3D Printing and The Power Industry: How Technology Is Transforming The Sector
3D printing or “additive manufacturing” is the process of joining materials to make objects from three-dimensional model data, usually layer upon layer.
In 2017 the 3D printing industry was worth $7bn, up from $3bn in 2013 and by 2025 it is expected to account for over $20bn all over the world.
Additive manufacturing (AM) has found its application in different sectors of the power industry, both in building prototypes and in mainstream production leading to process simplification and operational efficiency.
During the initial phase of making inroads in the power industry, 3D printing has achieved a fair level of success with the power industry and technological firms creating an ally for the benefit of each other.
3D printing in the solar power industry
Though technical feasibility of solar cells has been proved long back, the capacity factor (CF) is still low with an average of around 17% in best case scenario. The low CF of the solar panels makes it difficult to attain economics of scale for large solar plants and therefore requires subsidies for continued operation over a period of time.
3D printing can be a game changer in this respect as it is now being used to create solar panels.
3D printed solar panels are light super-thin solar strips which can be easily transported anywhere with reduced chances of damage.
3D printing and the wind power industry
Development and innovation through materials and manufacturing technologies are essential for the wind industry to prosper and to continue increasing its annual energy production.
Another potential benefit is that large wind blades would not have to be carried over long distances. Instead, the 3D printer could be taken on-site and “print” the blades thereby saving transportation cost. Also, this would cut down the manufacturing time of the mould by 35% making it possible to combine different materials in different areas of the blade.
3D printing and batteries
Research teams all over the world are exploiting 3D printing technologies to create complex internal structures of batteries with increased capacity and flexibility in shape and size.
In recent years increased numbers of electronic components have become 3D-printable and in the near future we can expect prototyping of smart functional hi-tech devices developed for home.
3D printing and the nuclear power industry
R&D is also ongoing to identify the applications of 3D printing in the nuclear industry.
3D printed part – a metallic 108 millimeter (mm) diameter impeller for a fire protection pump, was installed in a nuclear power plant.
This technology can be used for obsolete parts which are no longer available, allowing old power plants to continue their operations. Westinghouse is also using binder-jetting additive manufacturing in order to cut costs and cut short the lead times for parts that are difficult to obtain.
3D printing and the power industry: Conclusions
3D printing, a cutting-edge technology, is gradually finding its application in various facets of the power industry including renewable and conventional power sectors and battery storage devices.
However, as the technology is still in experimental stage and yet to achieve full commercialisation, it will be a matter of time to fully understand how deep this new technology can penetrate in the power industry given the high equipment standards required for efficient plant operation and the hazardous environment they endure.