Additive Manufacturing is the Future of Turbomachinery
Charles Goulding and Peter Saenz of R&D Tax Savers discuss additive manufacturing in turbomachinery.
3D printing technologies are being used to develop the next generation of turbomachinery that will power the world. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 28% increase in the world’s energy use by 2040, which means that humanity needs to either find a new and reliable way to produce energy or become more efficient in existing energy production methods.
The Research & Development Tax Credit
Enacted in 1981, the now permanent Federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit that typically ranges from 4%-7% of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:
Must be technological in nature
Must be a component of the taxpayer’s business
Must represent R&D in the experimental sense and generally includes all such costs related to the development or improvement of a product or process
Must eliminate uncertainty through a process of experimentation that considers one or more alternatives
Eligible costs include US employee wages, cost of supplies consumed in the R&D process, cost of pre-production testing, US contract research expenses, and certain costs associated with developing a patent.
On December 18, 2015, President Obama signed the PATH Act, making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum tax for companies with revenue below $50MM and for the first time, startup businesses can obtain up to $250,000 per year in payroll taxes and cash rebates.
The Importance of Turbomachinery
Many might believe that the world runs on fossil fuels, but in reality, it runs on turbomachinery. The term turbomachinery refers to machines that transfer energy between a rotor and a fluid. Both fossil fuels and many renewable energies rely on turbomachinery. Turbomachinery is the intermediary that converts the energy stored in fossil fuels into usable electricity and is the same technology that allows wind turbines and other technologies to harness the energy found in nature. Turbomachinery is also behind systems that make electric cars efficient. Electric motors run off of energy produced by large turbines at power plants. Due to physical phenomena, large-scale turbines produce electricity more efficiently than combustion engines, which directly burn fossil fuels and use the energy stored in the hydrocarbon bonds to actuate pistons. In essence, traditional ways of producing energy as well as upcoming green technologies of the future rely on turbomachinery.
Companies Using 3D Printing to Improve Turbine Design
Major global companies, such as Vestas, Siemens, and General Electric (GE) are leveraging 3D printing technologies to improve their turbine designs and manufacturing processes. Vestas, a Danish manufacturer, is the largest manufacturer of wind turbines in the world. Vestas has its own 3D printing facilities where they use additive manufacturing for rapid prototype development and to determine how to improve manufacturing, transportation, and servicing activities.
GE, a once sprawling conglomerate, now focuses on three businesses and is utilizing additive manufacturing to improve the designs of their technologies, namely turbomachines, jet engines, and generators. General Electric has taken full advantage of 3D printing capabilities to curb development time by a third. This was accomplished by consolidating 855 components of its new advanced turboprop engine to just around a dozen parts, which resulted in a design that reduced fuel burn by 20% while increasing power by 10%. In 2016, GE bought a controlling stake in Arcam AB and Concept Laser, two industrial 3D printing companies, in addition to building a center for Additive Technology Advancement (CATA). Recently, GE announced a sudden change in CEO to Larry Culp, formerly the CEO of Danaher. This could be a sign that the company is open to change and will be attempting to refocus its efforts. GE is planning on developing their next generation of wind turbine called the Haliade X, which is predicted to produce twice the energy of their current model. GE is investing $400 million in research and development as well as other expenses to develop the improved machine.
Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems (MHPS), a major player in the gas turbine industry, uses additive manufacturing technology to produce highly efficient and cost-effective turbines, which has played a role in their recent increase market share. CEO Paul Browning states that additive manufacturing allows designers to align crystals in material into a uniform direction across a component’s stress access point, which improves the temperature capabilities of components, and therefore allows turbines to run more efficiently.
Enhancing Wind Turbine Design While Reducing Cost
Additive manufacturing can be used to improve many different aspects of wind turbines. Although wind turbines are a promising technology for renewable energy, there are many reasons that are inherent in their design that make them expensive.
Just the scale of the blades alone makes them expensive to manufacture and transport. Currently, manufacturers have to compromise on design to keep the cost of producing blades down. 3D printing is a viable solution, as it can be used to optimize designs while keeping costs low by allowing for multiple materials to be used in blade design. By printing multiple materials, designers can strategically use lightweight materials in certain locations and more resilient materials where necessary on blades. The result is a design that is lightweight yet durable, which not only extends the lifespan of the blades, but also helps to make the blades easier to transport and easier install.
With large-scale 3D printers, blades could be printed onsite, which would eliminate costs related to shipping parts. Manufacturing and assembly onsite also lends itself to printing replacement parts for servicing turbines as needed. Moreover, the operation of the blades would be more efficient due to less force required to move the mass of the blade. Finally, additive manufacturing techniques can be used to enhance the design of all different types of turbines by incorporating unique geometries that enhance performance and reduce noise.
Additive manufacturing technologies will be the cornerstone of the next generation of turbomachinery. The gains in turbomachinery efficiency and reduced manufacturing costs will help companies develop innovative technologies to meet the world’s increasing energy demands. R&D Tax Credits are available for companies investing time and money into additive manufacturing technologies in order to improve turbine design and manufacturing processes.