Do you remember the 3D printing hype? The production technology was going to be the solution to nearly every problem. The industry sector has since learned that even though it is not a solution to 'every' problem, it does resolve a very large number of issues. ENGIE Fabricom is one of the companies that proves the case. Yannick Stroobants and his team have built up their expertise in 3D printing using metal. They are happy to share their experience and lessons learned.
"What type of 3D printing experiment?"
ENGIE Laborelec collaborated with ENGIE Fabricom on a project to set up 3D printing at an industrial scale in Belgium. This project was supported by parent company ENGIE. Our country had, after all, acquired expertise in this area. KU Leuven is a world pioneer in metal 3D printing. ENGIE Fabricom asked this academic partner to collectively develop their service activities.
Yannick Stroobants: "We mainly use 3D printing to optimise the production of replacement parts. Our maintenance services are now even more efficient and cost-effective.
We also manufacture completely new parts which could not be manufactured using traditional methods. We save on time, up to a few days, when we print a standard part. This is interesting from a delivery perspective when compared having to carve a part from a metal block or having to pour liquid metal into a mould. Furthermore, 3D printing technology allows you to determine the interior of a part. For example, do you need a complex duct system for liquids? A 3D printer can print it for you!"
The potential of 3D printing is incredibly high, but the ENGIE Fabricom team had to keep their feet on the ground:
"3D printing provides an enormous freedom of design: you can create completely new objects and structures which previously were not feasible. But you cannot apply this technology to everything. Three factors have to be taken into consideration: the cost-efficiency ratio, the product tolerances and the roughness. The best production method is selected based on part usage. This is often a hybrid solution consisting of both 3D printing and conventional technology.
We have completed various specific 3D printing cases in our own production environment and at customers' sites, including the production of an impeller at Total and the production of a fuel distributor for one of our sister companies. Both are very complex parts when manufactured using traditional methods. 3D printing the parts only took a couple of days. The final objective is to find business using 3D printing methods, taking advantage of the potential of our systems. We want to share our expertise within the ENGIE group to provide added value as service partner."
"We have mainly learned that extensive research into 3D printing is required. Sister company ENGIE Laborelec performs various tests to determine the settings for the printing process in order to produce the required quality. Companies have to be convinced of the advantages of 3D printing. The development of certification and material quality standards is essential. We are working on this. We consider every 3D printing project as an opportunity for our customer to learn about the options of this new technology. We often invite their designers over to learn about this technology. Companies experimenting with 3D printing have to share their knowledge and experience in order to explore and apply its full potential."
"3D printing will not become the dominant production method any time soon, but it will become part of the complete value chain. We observe an interesting development towards a combination of traditional technology and 3D printing. New doors will be opened as materials improve and the price decreases. We are confident that 3D printing is gaining ground. Our first cases allowed us to map the 3D printing road we want to take."
Use case: pump impeller for Total
Total had to replace the impeller in two pumps at their refinery. They were looking for a short-term solution and metal 3D printing was selected as the most interesting alternative. The delivery period for cast pump impellers is sometimes a few months. The manufacture of the part was started by making a 3D scan of the impeller to be replaced to create a 3D CAD model using reverse engineering. Next, the part was optimised for efficiency and printability. The impeller was subsequently printed in 50 micrometre layers of corrosion-resistant stainless steel (316L) in approximately 72 hours. The impeller underwent finishing and testing and was installed after only two weeks. Result: The pump pressure and flow are higher than with the previous impeller.