For those of us who struggle to get through a week without taking a hammer to the unreliable office printer, the idea we should rely on printers more may seem alien. But the wind industry could soon be doing just that, if the evolution of 3D printers is anything to go by.
For example, last week US 3D printer maker Stratasys revealed that it is set to show off a machine called Infinite Build at next month’s International Manufacturing Technology Show 2016.
It says that Infinite Buiild can print layers of an object vertically, and therefore make much longer items than currently possible.
That could well include parts for wind turbines. Alongside its announcement about the technology, Stratasys also said it has agreed deals with Boeing and Ford to explore the possibilities of such 3D printers. Boeing is looking at it as a way to develop lightweight customised parts at relatively low volumes; while Ford is seeing how this could work in the automotive industry. Stratasys has previously worked with the likes of Airbus and NASA.
If this works in the aerospace and automotive sectors, it should work in wind too. In fact, in time we could even see manufacturers 3D printing whole turbine blades.
That isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In March, it was revealed that the US Department of Defense is leading an initiative called the National Rotor Testbed, which is looking to produce aerodynamic rotor blades using 3D printed moulds. This could help reduce the time and cost associated with making turbine blades, and therefore boost wind’s credentials as an investable proposition.
It is a long way from the scaled-down 3D-printed models we used to see at conferences, and we will watch with interest. With 3D printing coming of age, though, it can surely only be a matter of time before the wind industry finds a way to benefit.
In fact, the real frontier technology we should start thinking about now is ‘4D printing’, which is where 3D-printed objects can change shape when they are heated with an electrical current or by the air; when they are exposed to pressure; or when they get wet. This has potential applications in valves, electrical, pipes and much more.
Scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California are working on objects that can fold and unfold when needed. The prototypes may be tiny and commercialisation of the materials is still a long way off, but the researchers say they see a diverse range of uses in aerospace, health, space travel and beyond.
And we would put wind in there too, as this technology must have uses to help make turbine blades more aerodynamic.
That could be turbine blades with built-in vortex generators that respond to the wind conditions dictate; or that enable the shape of the blade itself to change. Or it could be turbines that become less rigid during an earthquake or hurricane so they do not break.
That just scratches the surface – and is, of course, our speculation – but we expect the commercial potential of this to become clear in due course. This may seem like a long way off, but ten years ago so would the idea of using 3D printed parts in wind turbines. Now it feels within reach, and without a paper jam in sight.