3D Printing for Fire Sprinkler Pipe Design Issues

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3D printing may provide a practical solution to a common fire sprinkler installation issue. Pipe installation in tight spaces in walls and ceilings often requires creative pipe design.Traditionally, water piping was only available in very specific standard fitting sizes limited to 90 degrees, 45 degrees and T shape angles. Pipe connections could move only in a particular variation of those angles. With a little creativity, however, 3D printers could potentially be used to manufacture pipes, fittings, joints, elbows and connectors that are not limited by those specific dimensions. With the use of a custom fitted pipe, installers and designers could potentially engineer unique shapes to bend around other pipes, corners and tight spaces. Innovative solutions such as these provide a great opportunity for R&D Tax Credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

Fire Resistant Components

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) provides guidelines on fire sprinkler system requirements and regulations. Required pipe and tube materials are specified in NFPA 13d and 13R. Depending on the particular application, pipes or tubes can be manufactured using either steel pipe, copper tube or CPVC plastic piping for limited applications. Steel and copper are already capable of being 3D printed, while CPVC is not far off.

Steel Pipes

The most commonly used steel pipe for sprinkler systems is black steel pipe. Black steel is considered strong, durable and resistant to fire. With a melting point of about 2,700°F, black steel pipe can withstand high temperatures within a burning building. 3D Printing with steel or black steel starts out like any other printing process, however, instead of plastic being extruded, metal powder is layered along with a glue-like binding substance used to fuse the powder together and create the product. The powder is then often heated/sintered together and the binding substance is melted away.

Copper Tubes

Copper tubing is another piping material approved for sprinkler manufacturing in NFPA 13. Second to black steel, copper piping is the next common material used in fire sprinkler systems. 3D printing copper involves a technique somewhat similar to the traditional method of creating copper piping. First, a wax cast of the item is 3D printed and covered in fine plaster. When the plaster solidifies, it is placed in an oven and heated to melt the wax out. The metal is then poured into the empty cast and the 3D printed copper pipe is created. The benefit with the 3D print method is the ability to economically and precisely print the wax cast as opposed to traditional methods which require larger investments.

Plastic pipes

Plastic pipe (namely, CPVC and PEX tubing) is permitted for certain types of sprinkler systems. CPVC is listed for residential use, light hazard use and limited ordinary hazard use. These plastic pipes may soon be capable of being 3D printed as well. Chemson Pacific of Sydney recently created a 3D vinyl material in 2016 which can be used to make PVC pipes. PVC is a thermoplastic polymer, while CPVC, a very similar product is a thermoplastic produced by the chlorination of PVC resin.

Conclusion

3D printing may be used by sprinkler system designers and installers to create unique pipes, fittings, joints, elbows and connectors that were traditionally limited by standard specifications. Designers of 3D printed fire sprinkler components should make certain they comply with local regulation requirements. When the 3D print method is used, companies may be eligible for R&D Tax Credits which are available to stimulate innovation.


Charles Goulding and Michael Wilshere of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing for fire sprinkler systems.

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