GE Pursues New 3D Printer for Casting Metal Wind Turbine Parts with Fraunhofer and voxeljet

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A team of partners including GE (NYSE: GE), Fraunhofer IGCV and voxeljet AG (NASDAQ: VJET) have announced the establishment of a project to create “the world’s largest 3D printer for offshore wind applications”. Together, the team will build the Advance Casting Cell (ACC) 3D printer to produce molds for casting metal elements for GE’s Haliade-X offshore wind turbine.

Image courtesy of GE.

While additive construction is making headlines for the increasing number of 3D printed buildings popping up around the globe, Executive Editor Joris Peels and I have been more excited about the possibilities to replace or complementing concrete casting. For that reason, one of the most exciting projects in this regard has been GE’s work with wind turbines.

The company has explored 3D printing with the large-scale equipment of Danish firm COBOD to 3D print larger wind turbine bases. This would, ideally, allow for the construction of even larger turbines that could generate more electricity. Now, it looks as though GE is exploring other options for other elements of the turbine, including massive metal parts.

The basic binder jetting process is defined by spreading a layer of particle material onto a building platform. Subsequently a print head applies a binder into the powder bed where the part is to be printed. Then, a new layer of material is applied and the process repeats until the final part or mold ist printed. (© voxeljet)

With financial support from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, the ACC 3D printer will be 3D printing large-scale molds to cast metal components for the nacelle housing structure that contains all of the generating components for the GE Haliade-X. These parts can weigh over 60 metric tons and the time necessary to create the pattern and mold can run up to 10 weeks. By 3D printing the molds, it can take just two weeks.

The ACC printer will be designed to print molds for key components of wind turbines, with sizes up 9,5 meters in diameter and 30 to 60 tons in weight. (© GE Renewable Energy)

Juan Pablo Cilia, Senior Additive Design Engineer at GE Renewable Energy, said, “The 3D printed molds will bring many benefits including improved casting quality through improved surface finish, part accuracy and consistency. Furthermore, sand binder jet molds or additive molds provide cost savings by reducing machining time and other material costs due to optimized design. This unprecedented production technology will be a game changer for production efficiency allowing localized manufacturing in high cost countries, a key benefit for our customers looking to maximize the local economic development benefits of offshore wind.”

The modular ACC printing process will be based on voxeljet’s binder-jetting technology for sand molds and cores, capable of producing molds for castings up to 9.5 meters in diameter and weighing over 60 tons. Due to the benefits of 3D printing, the molds can be more geometrically complex to produce the intricate metal pieces in the various shapes and sizes for the nacelle. For instance, it would be possible to consolidate mold pieces in order to improve production efficiency.

A cast metal part alongside a 3D printed sand mold. Image courtesy of voxeljet.

Christian Traeger, Director of Marketing and Sales at voxeljet, explained, “The test mold we printed for GE in 2019 consisted of dozens of individual parts. With the ACC, we aim to print a significantly reduced number of parts for the full set. Added to that, the mold can be optimized in terms of functionality and material consumption. This optimization makes completely new casting designs possible that can further enhance the efficiency of the turbines.”

The nacelle for the Haliade-X, the largest wind turbine in the world. Image courtesy of GE.

The Fraunhofer Institute for Casting, Composite and Processing Technology IGCV will be taking on the casting and materials technology along with 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,” said Dr. Daniel Günther, Head of Department Molding Processes and Molding Materials at Fraunhofer IGCV. “Also, we will develop and test new approaches to process monitoring as part of the project.”

The partners aim to 3D print the elements on site, reducing the carbon footprint created by shipping large parts from a central production location. Moreover, Fraunhofer experts will be attempting to make production more sustainable by improving the quality of the manufacturing process, thus reducing waste from errors.

Prof. Dr. Wolfram Volk, director of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, explained, “We aim to optimize the mold printing to avoid extremely costly misprints or even miscasts, to save on binder and activator, and to improve mechanical and thermal behavior during casting. By developing a process that conserves resources as much as possible, we want to help to improve the environmental and cost balance in the manufacture of wind turbines.”

“While offsite on-demand 3D printing provides many benefits for small quantities of cast parts, running a 3D printing system on-site leverages the technology to its fullest capacity. Given the demand for offshore wind turbines, that will help a lot to fulfill project schedules and high market demands,” adds Dr. Ingo Ederer, CEO at voxeljet. “With our productive “Binder-Jetting” technology in combination with our experience in large format industrial 3D printing, we are serving customers in the foundry industry for over 20 years. It is our mission to bring 3D printing into true industrial manufacturing and we are therefore very excited to be part of this groundbreaking project.”

GE Renewable Energy has so far been chosen to provide 5.7 GWs of Haliade-X projects in Europe and the U.S. As nations attempt to shift energy production from fossil fuels to renewables, both areas where GE has played key roles, the conglomerate has situated itself in the ideal position. The partners aim to initiate the project in Q3 of 2021 with printer trials expected to begin in Q1 2022.

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