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Siemens and ORNL 3D Print 25-pound Turbine Blade with WAAM

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), in collaboration with Siemens Technology, has used metal 3D printing to create large, rotating steam turbine blades for power plants. This feat, achieved through wire arc additive manufacturing (WAAM), marks a significant milestone in the production of large-scale metal parts, particularly for the energy segment.

The project, spearheaded by the Department of Energy’s ORNL, showcases the potential of 3D printing in producing components traditionally manufactured through casting and forging, often outsourced internationally. WAAM, in this case developed in collaboration with Lincoln Electric, employs an electric arc to melt metal wire, which is then layered by a robotic arm to form a near-net shape. This process is followed by machining to meet final design specifications. The turbine blade, weighing over 25 pounds, demonstrates the capability of WAAM in creating substantial and intricate shapes.

The ORNL team worked with industry partner Siemens to create a steam turbine blade, shown at the center of the image, using a wire arc 3D printer in DOE’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

“There’s now a realization that we cannot get low-volume castings and forgings that exceed 100 or 200 pounds from the domestic supply chain,” said Michael Kirka, lead research and group leader for the Deposition Science and Technology group at ORNL. “It’s put us in an untenable position, especially as we see how international conflicts have affected the international movement of critical supplies.”

Contoured steam turbine blades require a very precise shape, with contoured curves that narrow toward the tip. Wire arc 3D printing had not previously been used to make a rotating component of this scale. Credit: Carlos Jones/ORNL

The collaboration with Siemens Technology, a US-based research and development arm of Siemens AG, aims to address these challenges. Initially, Siemens Technology’s exploration into WAAM began in 2019, focusing on component repair. However, the scope of the project widened during the COVID-19 pandemic due to extended wait times for new cast steam turbine blades. The expansion of the project encompassed the 3D printing of all replacement parts.

“The original intent was to just print 25% of the top section of the blade,” said Anand Kulkarni, senior principal key expert for Siemens Technology. “But when we saw the potential of the wire arc setup at ORNL, we thought we could do the whole blade in one build. The capability to scan the part while it was being built gave us the right information that could be fed to our machining staff and enabled us to reduce production time.”

This development not only demonstrates a major advancement in manufacturing efficiency but also highlights the potential for on-demand manufacturing of large components. The ability to 3D print critical parts offers a flexible and reliable alternative to conventional manufacturing, reducing downtime and liberating companies from dependence on specific manufacturing tools. Kirka noted the importance of 3D printing in replicating any design, especially valuable for turbine components that may have been produced decades ago, for which original manufacturing tools are no longer available.

“We’re still looking at the properties side of things to see how results compare with traditional methods,” Kulkarni said. “But if the quality of the part is good, that opens doors to more on-demand manufacturing. And this case study opens the envelope to large components.”

Siemens has been a leading player in the development of 3D printed components for turbines, utilizing laser powder bed fusion for the production of turbine blades, premixers, impellers, and more. While they currently operate with gas turbines, they can be utilized to generate power from a wide variety of energy sources, ranging from fossil fuels to nuclear, geothermal, wind, biomass, and even concentrated solar power. By targeting such a general piece of the energy sector, Siemens will benefit both in near- and long-term energy strategies pursued by nations and corporations.

This is no secret to larger governing bodies, which are funding the development of advanced manufacturing techniques for any number of energy sources. As the world shifts away from fossil fuels, 3D printing makes it possible to optimize the use of oil and gas through novel designs. At the same time, these same items can be applied to a variety of sustainable energy generation systems.

ORNL, Lincoln Electric, and Siemens will all have representatives participating in the upcoming Additive Manufacturing Strategies (AMS) business summit taking place February 6 – 8, 2024. Though not necessarily from the divisions associated with this project, these representatives will be able to provide keen insight on the relationship between AM, energy, and supply chain resilience. Mark Douglass, Business Development Manager of AMS Platinum Sponsor Lincoln Electric Additive Solutions, will be giving the “Session Keynote: Latest in Codes and Standards for Wire DED,” while Ulli Klenk, Lead Principal for Additive Manufacturing at Siemens Energy, will be participating in “Talk 2: AM Fosters Decarbonization.” Amy Elliott, Senior Scientist and Group Leader for Robotics and Intelligent Systems at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, will be on “Panel 3: Sinter Based AM.”

All images courtesy of Carlos Jones/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy.

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