Reverse engineering and additive manufacturing. Global trend of import substitution and local production to ensure sustainable development

Mykola Rubakh

Information messages about the widespread use of 3D printing have become regular and commonplace in news feeds and social media. The global application of 3D printing technology in a variety of industries around the world has become driving force for the development of a new ‘digital economy’, which saves both time and money required to deliver goods and is now effectively deployed in the areas ranging from the world of fashion to the aerospace industry. The Ukrainians have also achieved certain success here. For example, the Ukrainian 3D print factory Kwambio presented at the CES-2018 Las Vegas exhibition the world’s first industrial 3D printer for ceramics which was developed in Odessa. The development was of interest in the automotive company Tesla, the aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin and many other companies. There are examples of successful use of Ukrainian additive technologies in the production of energy-efficient homes, namely PassiveDom project, a fully energy-independent house, which is printed on a 3D printer and costs approximately US $ 65 thousand. The project has become successful overseas. In the USA, PassiveDom has already received more than 8,000 orders.

3D print market and its potential

Additive production is a generic name of the technology that involves production performed in accordance with the three-dimensional digital model using the method of layer-by-layer application. The technology of three-dimensional printing appeared in the late 1980s. The first devices were extremely expensive, and the choice of materials for creating models was limited. Today, market capitalization of 3D printing is US $ 5 billion, the annual growth of the additive technology market is 15%. The perspectiveness of this technology is determined by the fact that specific consumption of materials for the production of parts with the use of additive methods is reduced by almost 10 times, and, labor costs are reduced 5-fold on average.

For the first time, I became acquainted with the potential of additive technologies while studying at the National Aviation University, where I was fortunate enough to study aviation engines and their applications in the energy sector. At that time, sitting for the Resource Efficiency course, the author first heard the phrase ‘buy-to-fly ratio’, which stands for the weight ratio between the raw material used to produce the component and the weight of the component itself. That is, the amount of materials that were purchased, and the amount that actually ‘flew’ on the plane. According to various data, this ratio is now 15:1 or even 20:1 for complex details. Together with this, the use of additive technologies will allow this indicator to be reduced to 2:1 or even 1.5: 1. Currently, there are approximately 100,000 3D printers in the world, about 14,000 out of which are of industrial application, and there are only 4,000 metal powder ones. This is exactly their application in the energy sector that we are going to talk about here.

Additive technologies in energy sector.

As of today, according to recent analytical studies, many companies, namely, General Electric, Siemens, NASA, Titomic are now actively involved into the utilization of additive technologies to be used in high-tech industries. Even in the Russian Federation ‘Rusatom – Additive Technologies’ has been established. Thus, for example, General Electric, which invested about US $ 1 billion into the acquisition of two of the world’s leading manufacturers Concept Laser and Arkam, are now printing 25,000 fuel injectors for new turbo propellers, and NASA saves about US $ 1.5 million a year on 3D-printing. The implementation of additive technologies for the needs of large energy industry is rapidly expanding. There are a number of examples.

The International General Electric Oil & Gas Concern introduced the use of 3D printing to establish a more efficient supply chain for spare parts, which reduced stand-by time from 12 weeks to 12 hours. When it became necessary to develop and adjust the production of a new burner unit for the GE Nova LT18 gas turbine, they applied additive technology, which allowed reducing the time required for design and control of documentation by half. A very illustrative example is Halliburton, world drilling giant, that applied three-dimensional printing at its own manufacturing of drilling rigs, and noted that such an approach provided savings in the particular case of 50% of the time and about US $ 500 000. Shell, in particular their upstream oil and gas department, took on an active position in the application of additive technologies. The urgency is confirmed by the fact that on the shelf or in remote areas, drilling rigs sometimes wait for spare parts for months, and the use of three-dimensional printing allows localization of production and optimization of repair campaigns. World’s giant BP is also keeping eye on 3D printing. They have created a special research group that studies the potential impact of localization of production on the need for international shipping. And this is not surprising, since international sea freight currently consumes more than 30% of world oil, and additive technologies can affect this demand dramatically.

Representatives of high-tech nuclear power industry are also not lagging behind. Westinghouse already uses 3D-printing in the United States for its own production of brackets and bearing housings for electric motors, and by the end of 2018, the company is planning first application of a spare part manufactured using the additive technology in the active zone of the nuclear reactor. In China, for the first time, the technology of 3D printing was applied in nuclear energy sector. Refrigerator lid was manufactured from EAM235 alloy using the additive method and it was installed on the largest in the People’s Republic of China, Dayawan Nuclear Power Station. The European company Siemens also has the experience of manufacturing spare parts using 3D printing method for operation at NPS power units. Their successful project is manufacturing using 3D printing of impeller pump for NPS Krsko. The 108-mm diameter impeller manufactured by Siemens engineers replaced the one that operated since 1981. Manufacturing company producing the specified part ceased to exist, however with the help of 3D-technologies it became possible to make a virtual copy of the necessary spare parts and to print it at the Siemens subsidiary factory in Sweden. The project was awarded with international-level awards and covered in sectoral media. However, domestic experts emphasize that the key in the technology is 40x40 restriction on the size of the parts.

However, it’s worth keeping in mind that addictive technology is still a young industry and it develops quite rapidly. Thus, in May 2018, presentation of the world’s largest 3D printer, which was able to ‘print’ spare parts of 9 meters by 3 meters by 1.5 meters, was announced. This gigantic device was designed and built by the Australian company Titomic. This 3D printer is mounted into one of the factory buildings in the Melbourne Industrial Area. Its dimensions are 40 meters length and 20 meters height. The cartridge of the device is filled with either titanium or other metal powder, which, with the help of a stream of hot gas mixture, is thrown onto the ‘sheet’ surface. The speed of its work is 45 kg per hour, while other machines can ‘print’ about 1 kg per day. Currently, Titomic already has experience in the energy sector, even announced successful projects of gas turbine blades manufacturing. This example is relevant and appropriate because at the present time the production of gas turbine blades is one of the most complex technological processes due to high operating parameters, in particular pressure and temperature, so those 3D printers producing reliable gas turbine blades are capable to print products for any industrial branches.

Prospects for Domestic Energy Industry

Conventional experience of coordination of international cooperation in the field of attraction of advanced technologies and relevant knowledge for the needs of the energy sector proves an intricate approach to the organization of such world-known system called Technology & Knowledge Transfer. Currently, such a system works by the ‘top-down’ method, when foreign companies offer their own developments or spare parts during bilateral meetings, and top management of domestic companies coordinates the determination of the relevance of such a proposal to industrial and technical services at production sites. At the same time, the ‘Reverse engineering’ approach is gaining popularity. According to this approach, company management explores the real needs of operational and maintenance units at sight and studies the localization of its own manufacturing units of such scarce parts using the method of additive technologies (metal powder 3D printing). After determining the priority list of details scanning of samples takes place. It is performed in order to create a perfect three-dimensional model part, the file is uploaded to a metal-powder 3D printer, which missing piece layer by layer. In the framework of preparation for the start of new production capacities, additive technology will reduce the number of drawing revisions by 25% and will reduce the time required to engineering quality control by 30%. Either this approach is relevant and non-alternative in the case where the original manufacturer does not exist any more, or it modernized the technological line, or it is necessary to implement a strategy of import substitution, in order to increase the supply reliability of necessary spare parts.

The assessment of advantages and disadvantages of launching such an approach to production primarily requires the use of objective methodology and effective criteria. Currently, in the international practice, there are many sufficient approaches used to assess the prospects for launching innovative projects and the implementation of resource-saving methods of production. One of them considered to be the most objective one is value-engineering. Value engineering is a method of technical and economic engineering analysis, aimed at increasing (preservation) of functional parameters of the object while minimizing the cost of its creation and operation. And, given very limited experience of Ukraine in the use of additive technologies, it would be advisable to use it before making any individual decision to introduce 3D printing of missing spare parts instead of traditional production or import. However, let us first get acquainted with the model range of add-on machines and cost characteristics for a more detailed immersion into production aspects.

As it can be seen from the comparative analysis, additive production equipment provides for rather time-efficient reproduction of spare parts using high-strength materials with relatively low cost of metal powders. However, in addition to the noted benefits, it is important to outline the key difficulties associated with 3D printing. The main engineering challenges of modern additive methods of production include significant consumption of inert gas (usually nitrogen or argon), the need for a compressor, the need to use special software as well as high level of energy consumption during the production process. If you estimate capital costs, in addition to the specified prices for 3D printers, you need to purchase the following key equipment for your own factory production, namely:

- Special air conditioners and humidifiers for the optimal conditions required for melting metal powders - cost US $ 10,000.

- Annual supply of inert gas (e.g. argon) - cost US $ 12,000.

- Industrial compressor – cost US $ 30,000.

- Grit blasting device for surface treatment of spare parts – cost US $ 10,000.

- Oven for heat treatment of spare parts – cost starting from US $ 10,000.

- Software license – cost starting from US $ 3000 per year.

- The cost of maintenance - cost starting from US $ 10,000 a year.

- Filters for the melting of metal powders - cost starting from US $ 7,000 per year.

It is clear that price indices are approximate, but all data is valid and borrowed from a respectable analytical study performed by Metal Advanced Manufacturing, the industry digest.

The development and implementation of additive technologies is impossible without the creation of a regulatory framework, so the development of new design details and additive production includes, in addition to creating a digital CAD model, simultaneous standardization of this product as well as the establishment of technological regimes and material requirements. Within the structure of the State Enterprise ‘Ukrainian Research and Development Center for Standardization, Certification and Quality’ there exists an acting Technical Committee No. 54 entitled ‘Powder Metallurgy’, whose activity can be oriented towards ensuring the implementation of additive technologies aiming at the development domestic standards and harmonization of the European ones.

How can we benefit from this?

Actually, first of all, we need to master these addictive technologies, so that all technological processes are understandable, and potential applications in the energy sector is calculated. To this end, it is interesting to create the Hub of Energy Innovations that will launch a program for studying the experience of using additive technologies (3D printing) for the needs of the domestic energy sector in order to implement ‘Reverse Engineering’ system in the format of an international pilot project with the involvement of representatives of our energy companies, scientific institutions and international technology holders.

The following stage would be to determine the list of the most deficit parts and units, especially of the complex shape, manufacturers of which either disappeared, or are residents of countries that can use spare parts supplies as a lever of impact on the stability and reliability of Ukrainian fuel and energy sector. According to the results of this analysis, it will be possible to decide on the future business model, that is to determine whether it is appropriate to create own 3D production involving the purchase of all the necessary equipment and staff training, or is it better, during the initial steps, to use the experience of international partners in the format of outsourcing. Of course, both approaches have their own advantages and disadvantages. The acquisition of own equipment allows to significantly develop innovative engineering competencies, attract young people to work, create an up-to-date laboratory of additive technologies, which will dramatically reduce the time needed to create both prototypes and first operational products. However, this approach has significant disadvantages, namely the need to purchase specialized software and, most importantly, paid service, long-awaited arrival of foreign specialists and supplies of components. Regarding the involvement of international companies in production, it is clear that the main advantage is the reduction of financial risks. Such an approach can become an effective ‘pilot’ as well as the assessment of its own forces. At the same time, both approaches will serve the main mission to strengthen energy security of Ukraine and domestic energy machinery by means of import substitution and diversification of supply sources of spare parts and important parts.

*published in Balance of Energy of Ukraine №1, Jun 2018