NYSE-listed GE Renewable Energy, research institute Fraunhofer IGCV and three-dimensional (3D) printing systems manufacturer voxeljet have entered into a research partnership aimed at developing the world’s largest 3D printer for offshore wind applications in order to streamline the production of key components of GE’s Haliade-X offshore wind turbine.
The partners expect to launch the project during the third quarter of this year, with initial printer trials to start in the first quarter of 2022.
The project involves the development of a new, large-format 3D printer capable of producing sand moulds for casting the highly complex metal parts of different shapes and sizes that make up an offshore wind turbine nacelle.
The Advance Casting Cell (ACC) 3D printer that is under development will benefit from financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and will be capable of printing moulds to cast components for the nacelle of the GE Haliade-X that can each weigh more than 60 metric tons, reducing the time it takes to produce this pattern and mould from ten weeks or more to just two weeks.
The use of the 3D printer is also expected to reduce the product’s carbon footprint by eliminating the need to transport the large parts from a central manufacturing location.
The modular 3D printing process, which is based on voxeljet’s core “binder-jetting” technology, can be configured to print moulds for castings up to 9.5 m in diameter and more than 60 t in weight.
GE Renewable Energy senior additive design engineer Juan Cilia says the 3D printed moulds would bring “many benefits including improved casting quality through improved surface finish, part accuracy and consistency”.
The “unprecedented” production technology will be a game changer for production efficiency allowing localised manufacturing in high-cost countries, a key benefit for customers looking to maximise the local economic development benefits of offshore wind, he enthuses.
The Fraunhofer Institute for Casting, Composite and Processing Technology IGCV is responsible for casting and materials technology issues, as well as digital process monitoring.
“We are taking a close look at thermal management during casting, and we will evaluate the ideal proportions of the printing materials,” says Fraunhofer IGCV’s Dr Daniel Günther, who adds that the institute will develop and test new approaches to process monitoring as part of the project.
Based on prior experience, the team expects to significantly improve the environmental footprint of processes involved in producing the Haliade-X type wind turbines.
This sustainability aspect is a firmly established guiding principle of research at Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, according to the institute’s director, Professor Dr Wolfram Volk, who adds that the aim is to optimise the mould printing to avoid extremely costly misprints or even miscasts, to save on binder and activator use, and to improve mechanical and thermal behavior during casting.
Volk explains that, by developing a process that conserves resources as much as possible, “[the institute] wants to help to improve the environmental and cost balance in the manufacture of wind turbines”.
The announcement follows as the International Energy Agency has projected that global offshore wind capacity will increase 15-fold by 2040, becoming a $1-trillion industry, thanks to falling costs, supportive government policies and technological progress like that behind the Haliade-X offshore turbine from GE Renewable Energy.
GE Renewable Energy has been selected to supply its Haliade-X turbine for 5.7 GW worth of projects in Europe and the US.
The company is a member of the Offshore Wind Industry Council and as part of that supports various initiatives that aim at increasing the production of sustainable wind energy.