Nuclear engineers apply 3D printing to cut cost of parts replacement

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's new 3D printing project for nuclear plant components demonstrates the rising use of 3-D modelling to optimize complex engineering and manufacturing procedures.

3-D printing can offer a simplified building process, minimal waste and help to reduce tool costs. (Image credit: Riccardo Mojana)

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The latest advancements in 3D technology are offering new ways for nuclear plant operators to reduce costs as plant profits are dented by low wholesale power prices.

The global 3D and 4D technology market is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.2%, from $127.8 billion in 2016 to $314.2 billion by 2022, market research firm Research and Markets said in a report published in April.

The World Economic Forum identified 3D scanning and printing, which involves the layering of material onto a digital template, as one of its top ten emerging technologies of 2015.

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (GEH) announced June 22 it would lead a $2 million research project to use 3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, to manufacture replacement parts for nuclear power plants in a bid to reduce delivery lead times and costs.

3D technology is being increasingly used in engineering and construction. French 3D design software provider Dassault Systemes and engineering company Assystem announced June 29 they would collaborate to apply 3D simulation and data technology to enhance project efficiency for operational nuclear plants.

More powerful computers, better access to computer-aided design (CAD) software and higher quality graphics cards demanded by the computer games industry have accelerated advances in 3D Virtual Reality (VR) technology, Rab Scott, Head of Virtual Reality and Simulation at the U.K.’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC), told Nuclear Energy Insider.

AMRC has studied the use of 3D scanning lasers in combination with VR to assess nuclear power plant data, which allow off-site design and work planning to save time and 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,” Scott said.

Printing profit

GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's 3D printing project will be funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) through a new state program announced in June which will provide over $80 million for the research of cutting-edge advanced nuclear technology.

GEH's project will use additive manufacturing to produce spare parts which will be irradiated at the Idaho National Laboratory (IDL) and compared against unirradiated material.

Conventional manufacturing of complex parts can require significant manufacturing time and costs and high cost material can be wasted when subtractive methods are used to whittle away the material from a solid block, Hollyn Phelps, GEH spokeswoman, told Nuclear Energy Insider.

3-D printing offers a simplified building process and minimal waste which also help reduce the significant tooling costs associated with low-volume parts, she said. The new technology could reduce the manufacturing time for unique parts ten-fold and build rates should rise as improvements are identified, she said.

The 3-D printing device can currently accommodate any component that fits within a build envelope of 400 millimetres cubed (400 mm by 400 mm by 400 mm). Performance enhancing components, such as GEH’s Defender advanced debris filter, are likely candidates for additive manufacturing, as are parts like jet pump anti-vibration solutions offered as upgrades to Boiling Water Reactors, Phelps said.

For new plants, it could be applied to parts such as the fine motion control rod drive (FMCRD), and the development of larger 3D printing machines would allow larger, low volume, high quality components to be produced, she said.

Engineering applications

Leading 3-D design software provider Dassault Systemes is collaborating with international engineering specialist Assystem to embed its 3DEXPERIENCE platform into engineering projects for nuclear plant operations and maintenance.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform enables the virtual integration of information and knowledge taken from physical processes in plant design, engineering, construction and operations.

Through the new collaboration, Assystem’s Energy and Infrastructure division will deploy Dassault Systemes platform to build a new information system for its engineering missions on nuclear facilities, to support engineering data management, configuration management, procurement, program management and resourcing capabilities.

3DEXPERIENCE facilitates storing all data in a central repository, the unified information model (UIM), which then runs multi-dimensional simulations to create optimal process scenarios for improving safety, efficiency, profitability and sustainability.

Thomas Grand, Vice President for Energy, Process and Utilities Industry at Dassault Systèmes, said the UIM fosters collaboration between employees and better informs decision-makers by providing a complete picture of the plant’s status.

“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 told Nuclear Energy Insider.

Nuclear sector Engineering, Procurement and Construction (EPC) firms have reported time and cost benefits from using the 3D technology, including a 15% increase in operations efficiency during the initial plant design and engineering phase, Grand said.

The technology reduced the number of drawing revisions by 25% and cut the time required for engineering quality control by 30%, he said.

In one example, multi-dimension simulation reduced project delays when a steam generator was delivered damaged.

Rather than wait several months for the replacement steam generator to arrive before installing the equipment and sealing the reactor building, the building was sealed and the replacement generator was installed afterwards.

The 3DEXPERIENCE platform simulated alternative installation processes using lifting, handling, weight, inertia and stress calculations and showed a safe and efficient alternative was possible.

The UIM can also help to minimize start-up delays as providing up-to-date flows of information such as last minute modifications allows a smoother handover of accurate data from EPC companies to the operator, Grand said.

With spending on 3D and 4D applications set to hike in the coming years, the continuing evolution and improvement of the technology will increase the number of cost-saving applications available to nuclear new build and Operations and Maintenance projects.

By Karen Thomas