Metal AM in Motion: How Velo3D is Redefining Microturbines

January 17, 2022

Conversations around metal additive manufacturing (AM) often gravitate towards the big picture. Because of advancements in metal AM technology, there is now greater opportunity to reimagine supply chains, disrupt traditional manufacturing processes and enable newfound efficiencies in part performance through design.

When looking at the big picture, we sometimes lose sight of the real-world success stories advanced metal AM is driving, specifically how metal AM is working to redefine core parts production.

Through Velo3D’s end-to-end solution, we’ve seen a myriad of applications that have changed the way teams approach the design and manufacturing of crucial components of their operations.

In this piece we’ll discuss the challenges producing one core part, microturbines, and how Velo3D’s advanced metal AM solution is especially suited to overcome those unique challenges.

What Exactly Are Microturbines?

Microturbines are 25-to-500-kilowatt gas turbines evolved from piston engine turbochargers, aircraft auxiliary power units, or small jet engines, Microturbines can be also used for cogeneration and distributed generation as turbo alternators or turbogenerators, or to power hybrid electric vehicles. For our purposes we’ll be using its applications in aviation as the main example.

Gas turbines convert liquid fuel and air into mechanical energy which is used to drive the compressor as well as the fan blades (for thrust) or the generator (for electricity). Whereas large turbines can weigh thousands of pounds and generate enough power to keep commercial aircraft in flight, microturbines are typically used in smaller craft, like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

What Makes Microturbines Difficult to Produce?

Microturbines present a unique manufacturing challenge because they’re comprised of dozens of subcomponents that need to be precisely welded together into a complex internal structure. Historically, the production of a microturbine requires a combination of casting, five-axis machining, brazing, and welding to manufacture a completed part. The coordination of all these build phases makes for excessively long lead times and logistical challenges.

Where Advanced Metal AM is Revolutionizing Microturbine

Because so many different manufacturing methods go into the production of microturbines, they seem like an obvious candidate for metal additive manufacturing.

However, the complexity of their internal structure can present its own barriers for conventional metal AM systems.

Microturbines tend to feature complex lattice structures, high, thin walls, small holes, and dozens of internal cooling channels; all of which can be difficult to produce with conventional metal AM.

Thankfully, Velo3D’s advanced metal AM system is uniquely suited to addressing the challenges of microturbines by unlocking more flexible design freedom and innovation.

In the design phase, Velo3D has been successful in consolidating dozens of disparate parts into a single core component structure.

In one project, we worked in close collaboration with the team at Sierra Turbines to reimagine their Mk1 microturbine. By consolidating 61 discrete parts into a single unicore design, engineers were able to reduce the weight of the unit by about half.

Normally, with that level of consolidation you might expect to see a reduction in quality or efficiency, but the resulting microturbine saw 10x power density compared to incumbent parts, 40x more efficiency, and a performance of nearly 20x time between overhauls (TBO).

Velo3D’s synergy of Flow™ design software and Sapphire® printers helped ensure the successful print of the ambitious unicore design. In conventional metal AM, the complexity of internal channels and high, thin walls requires the printing process to include intricate support structures to reach the desired low angles of the design. The removal of these internal support structures, if accessible at all, requires meticulous post-processing which can render the part unusable in many cases.

Sapphire® printers can print below 45-degree angles without supports, which enabled Sierra Turbines to produce high quality internal channels and flow paths for gas and fluids that would have been impossible on a conventional metal AM system without supports.

Velo3D Sapphire® printers also use a revolutionary, proprietary non-contact recoater blade, which helped achieve thin walls and low angles in such a complex build without the risk of recoater blade collisions.

By combining design and printing into one integrated system, Velo3D can deliver on even the most ambitious designs without compromising their desired intent or quality.

Are you interested in learning more about Velo3D’s advanced metal AM solution? Get in touch with one of our experts today to see how we’re revolutionizing manufacturing.

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About the Author

Amir Iliaifar

Director of Content

Amir Iliaifar is the Director of Content at Velo3D where he oversees the production and distribution of Velo3D’s global digital content marketing initiatives. Prior to joining the company, Amir worked for a leading professional drone manufacturer, several SaaS companies, and as an automotive tech journalist. He holds a Master of Arts in Digital Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.