Powering the Renewable Energy Industry with 3D Printing

Point of View | 5 May 2020

In response to the rising concern about climate change and fossil fuel depletion, the energy industry continues to develop and improve renewable energy technologies.

The renewable energy industry reached a milestone in April 2019 as renewable energy accounted for 23% of power generation in the U.S while coal only accounted for 20% according to Deloitte. The advancement of renewable energy technologies allow them to reduce cost and increase battery storage capacity, making renewable energy more affordable and competitive. However, some production processes of renewable energy parts are not entirely environmentally friendly. Aside from that, producing these parts, such as solar panels, can still be quite costly.

Fortunately, the renewable energy sector began looking into the application of 3D printing in the industry.

Faster, cheaper, greener, and more efficient product development

Traditional prototyping is usually done with techniques like injection molding; however, it might take weeks or even months to produce one prototype with traditional techniques. 3D printing, on the other hand, enables engineers to produce low-cost yet quality prototypes in a short period of time. Also, 3D printing only uses the amount of materials required to produce prototypes while subtractive technologies usually involve cutting off materials that can be too small to be used in the future.

Aside from rapid prototyping, 3D printing offers an alternative production process that allows engineers to reduce production cost and even improve the efficiency of renewable energy equipment.

Although the solar industry has grown by more than 50% a year in the last decade, there is still room for improvement of quality and efficiency.  The production process of solar panels involves several steps to transform polycrystalline silicon into solar cells. 3D printing  can actually eliminate several steps to shorten the production process. Furthermore,  MIT researchers stated that 3D printing solar panels could actually reduce the production cost by 50%, making renewable energy more affordable, and 3D printed solar panels have been proven to be 20% more efficient than those produced with traditional methods.

Recently, engineers at Purdue University are conducting research on producing wind turbine parts with 3D printing. The university claims that more than double the combined electricity capacity of all the electric power plants in the U.S. can actually be generated from the wind off the coasts. However, the production process can be quite costly as finished steel, one of the materials used to manufacture anchors for floating wind turbines, is quite expensive. In addition, the traditional manufacturing technique to make concrete involves the use of mold to shape the concrete into the expected structure, adding more expense to the production process. 3D printing can help the engineers reduce cost of production as 3D-printed concrete is less expensive than concrete made of steel and it does not need molds to shape the concrete.

Avoid replacement of machinery due to lack of spare parts

Manufacturers cease to produce parts once the equipment is considered outdated. Operators without access to spare parts will have to replace the entire machinery only because one or a few spare parts wear out, resulting in a high cost of replacement. Supply chain managers might then opt to have a high level of spare parts inventory; however, the total cost of ownership can be quite high and a lot of the spare parts will remain unused and eventually be discarded. 

On-demand production enabled by 3D printing provides a solution to the aforementioned problem. By digitizing spare parts inventory of renewable energy equipment, the designs of spare parts will always be available. After identifying parts that are financially and technologically suitable for 3D printing, these parts will be qualified for production. Operators can order parts for production when they are needed. This does not only ensure long-term availability of spare parts, but also allow operators to eliminate replacement cost, decrease costs associated with inventory, and minimize equipment downtime.

The emphasis on shifting to renewable energy grows stronger as the yearly average temperatures continue to rise.  As a matter of fact, July 2019 was said to be the hottest month of record despite global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change. With 3D printing, engineers can accelerate the development of renewable energy technologies and reduce production costs to make renewable energy accessible to more people.

Spare Pats 3D has helped manufacturers in different industries digitize spare parts supply chain for them to become more competitive in today’s fast-paced digital world. Begin your digital journey with Spare Parts 3D to transform the renewable energy industry now!