3D printing has the potential to change how valve developers design and develop products. In the valve manufacturing industry, a variety of traditional designs can now be 3D printed including servo valves, gate valves and check valves. The beauty of the 3D printing method is that these valves can easily be manufactured without having to place an order and wait on shipment. What’s more, any size, shape or custom design can easily be created with quality precision. When designers and engineers develop products such as these, they may be eligible for Research and Development Tax Credits, which are available to stimulate innovation.
The Research & Development Tax Credit
Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13% 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.
The beauty of 3D printers is that unique designs can be created without a large capital investment and, consequently, without the need to produce large quantities of a product to justify the investment. Even something as little as a single valve can be printed economically and can be justified in a cost/benefit analysis. Valve engineers use 3D printers to design unique products with an array of tiny holes and flow channels, which are otherwise difficult to produce using tiny assembled parts. In addition, burdensome and time-consuming post-processing activities such as removing burrs from holes are eliminated. Moreover, fabrication of digitally designed parts can occur within hours using 3D printers, compared to days using conventional manufacturing methods. 3D design files can also easily be shared online, allowing for collaboration on new designs that can be 3D printed on site or mail-ordered at low costs. A wide range of valves are now being produced using the 3D printing process, including gate valves, ball bearing valves and servo valves.
The distinct feature of a gate valve is the sealing surface which is mechanically placed into position, often in a straight line to impede the flow of air or fluid, essentially creating a “gate” that acts as a shut off valve. Variations of this simple valve can be easily printed on most 3D printing machines.
Ball bearing valves can be 3D printed as well. The designer could start with a hollow tube that narrows at both ends. The 3D printed ball acts to halt the flow of the liquid passing through the tube when it is forced into place, depending on the design. More intricate designs could taper the width of the tube in order to control pressure at any given point. Other applications can also be easily built-in with 3D printers.
Servo valves are used for more precise applications. These intricate designs are often used when the amount of hydraulic, steam or air pressure must be precisely controlled at various intervals. Typically, they are controlled with small electrical signals. Despite their intricate nature, these valves can also be 3D printed, even in very small sizes. The value in 3D printing these products lies within cost savings. Servo valves are often costly, ranging from over a hundred to even a few thousand dollars in some cases. 3D printed versions, however, can be made for as little as a few dollars in materials.
GE Oil & Gas is currently using a LUMEX Avance-25 metal 3D printer, manufactured by a company called Matsuura Machinery Corporation, to print an array of intricate valve control parts using various design approaches.
An additional benefit to using 3D printers to create valves is that they can be uniquely tailored for custom integration. Mechanical designs are often comprised of many components crammed together in small spaces. Wires, tubes and hoses must often bend and snake around corners and over, under, around or beside other components. Valves are often integrated into these channels as one piece with a 3D printer. A 3D printed valve and hose combination is often easier to install than two separate parts in a tight space. Rather than having to assemble tiny valve parts where it is difficult to reach or see, the only necessary task is to simply fasten the valve in place to the machine.
3D printers can print an increasingly wide range of materials. Using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software, valves can be manufactured from the precise material for any given application. Biological valves can even be produced from organic matter which will presumably allow heart valves and other valve organs to be integrated into humans and animals. Plastic valves can be manufactured cost effectively for prototypes and metal valves can be produced for the aerospace, automotive and industrial machinery industries. Intricate material combinations can be printed as well, such as 3D printed multi-material proportional valves with flexible membranes constrained by stiffer structural flow and control channels. These 3D printed multi-material valves can exploit variable material properties for enhanced functionality in numerous applications.
3D printing has the potential to change how valve developers design and develop products. With 3D printers, designers can easily create custom valves and applications, avoiding the large cost outlays of traditional manufacturing methods. When engineers develop new valves using 3D printers, they may be eligible for R&D Tax Credits which are available to stimulate innovation.
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Charles R. Goulding and Michael Wilshere of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printed valves.