Aug 26, 2016 | By Alec

When asked what industries are most strongly associated with 3D design and 3D printing, we don’t have to think twice about our answer: the aerospace, automotive and aviation industries. But we might have to start adding a fourth industry to that list, as 3D technologies are also becoming increasingly commonplace in the nuclear sector – which obviously relies on requires very robust, reliable and temperature resistant components as well. And after a slow start, nuclear specialists have seen enough evidence to conclude that 3D design and 3D printing have become viable (manufacturing) tools for nuclear sector as well.

Of course we’ve seen plenty of evidence of this ourselves as well. Just earlier this summer, Rosatom (Russia’s state corporation in charge of all nuclear activities for military and energy applications) revealed plans to update and expand the Russian nuclear sector through 3D printing, supported by several metal 3D printing centers that should be in operation in 2030. Back in June, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) even announced plans for a $2 million research project to explore the viability of 3D printed replacement parts for nuclear power plants, in an attempt to reduce costs and delivery times. That project is also backed by the U.S. Department of Energy, who have provided $80 million for the development of new nuclear technology.

But a lot more is happening in the nuclear – which is facing financial difficulties as energy costs are decreasing through wholesale marketing. Nuclear power plants can therefore definitely benefit from efficient 3D design and the cost-saving opportunities of metal 3D printing. That is clearly visible in the nuclear landscape, as the sector is now turning to 3D on a large scale – both for power plant design and maintenance, and for prototyping and manufacturing of replacement parts.

Especially 3D design technology is a huge hit within the nuclear industry. Just last month, French software giants Dassault Systèmes (developers of SolidWorks) revealed a collaboration with engineering company Assystem to apply 3D simulation and data tech to nuclear projects. This will, they say, greatly enhance project efficiency, in part through virtual reality applications.

Specifically, Dassault Systèmes will embed its 3DEXPERIENCE platform into nuclear plant operations and maintenance systems, enabling engineers to integrate knowledge taken from physical processes into a central repository. This will unify information models and enable the running of process simulations that can recognize cost-saving opportunities. 3DEXPERIENCE will also make engineering data management, procurement, configuration and program management and resourcing capabilities available to nuclear engineers.

According to Dassault Systèmes’ vice president for energy, process and utilities industry Thomas Grand, it will make plant oversight far easier and more inclusive as well. “Today, many companies offer and implement cutting edge digital solutions. This is great, but we need to take care that we don’t recreate digital silos and our 3DEXPERIENCE platform plugs into all plant information that is then visible and shared across all disciplines,” he argued.

Citing one example, Grand revealed that a broken steam generator replacement procedure was made much more effective through 3D simulation tools. Rather than waiting months for replacement parts, the 3DEXPERIENCE platform simulated alternative installation processes that led to a far more efficient and safe alternative.

What’s more, Dassault Systèmes is not alone. The British Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) has also brought 3D scanning and VR systems in the picture to study nuclear power plant data, allowing off-site designs and more efficient planning – which could even reduce potential exposure to radiation doses. “VR allows mixed stakeholder groups to share the experience without the risk and time constraints. It’s quick and relatively cheap and the collaboration and communication are really powerful,” AMRC’s Rab Scott said.

But the 3D printing of spare parts can also save a lot of money, and GEH is leading the way in exploring opportunities. GEH will, among others, use 3D printing to minimize waste (and therefore tooling costs) while also looking at low-volume production. Manufacturing times could be reduced by ten-fold, GEH’s Hollyn Phelps estimated, adding that it can also be used to make components more efficient. They will also be irradiating 3D printed parts to compare them to unirradiated material.

Due to the size limitations of 3D printing, GEH will be limited to components of 400 cubic millimeters, but has already lined up a number of performance enhancing components for 3D printing. These include GEH’s defender advanced debris filters, boiling water reactors and parts like jet pump anti-vibration solutions. New nuclear plants could also be outfitted with other 3D printed parts, like fine motion control rod drives (FMCRDs).

Image credit: Riccardo Mojana

While the full financial benefits of 3D printing are not clearly visible yet, 3D design opportunities are already showing their value in the nuclear sector. Nuclear sector Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) firms are already looking at a 15 percent efficiency increase during plant design and engineering phases. What’s more, the number of drawing revisions was reduced by 25 percent, and engineering quality control times by 30 percent. But according to Karen Thomas of Nuclear Energy Insider, 3D printing will also show its value soon. “The continuing evolution and improvement of the technology will increase the number of cost-saving applications available to nuclear […] projects.” The nuclear sector is, it seems, finally catching up.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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