3DP for Distributed Manufacturing on a Global Scale

March 7, 2023
A network of contract manufacturers proved the viability of additive manufacturing to print certified metal parts in separate locations, fulfilling a global vision for additive manufacturing.

Foundries and diecasters have an adversary in additive manufacturing. They recognize that AM challenges the efficiency of metalcasting, and not only in terms of the time needed to plan and produce parts, or regarding the materials and energy saved during production.

Fundamentally, additive manufacturing threatens all standard forming methods because it alters how components or structures are designed and that means it changes how manufacturing projects are organized. This means that AM can change how manufacturers are or will be organized, and how production programs are or will be assigned.

Now, it appears that AM has another advantage in its favor: distributed manufacturing, or 3D printing a single industrial product, within specification, at geographically dispersed locations.

Conventional manufacturing technologies are capable of delivering products on a global basis, but that typically requires dedicated, high-cost production assets installed and personnel in place within the market to be served. That may limit the organization’s flexibility. Now, supply-chain issues with procurement, as well as production lag times inherent to particular manufacturing processes (e.g., casting) add to the costs and delayed delivery of conventionally manufactured products.

Metal AM can provide on-site legacy-part replacement in weeks rather than months. It could be more efficient and environmentally friendly to start with the powdered alloy feedstock than sourcing end-conditioned materials and shaping them with traditional methods. What’s more, the geometric freedom of AM technology creates opportunities to reimagine legacy designs.

Multiple parts can be consolidated into single-piece, complex components that are optimized for performance rather than manufacturability. Alloys that are difficult to work with using conventional manufacturing methods can be 3D printed more easily, ensuring higher part quality delivered using less material. With faster turnaround times than many current manufacturing technologies, metal AM can offer supply chain agility and scalable, on-demand delivery.

IMI Critical Engineering designs, manufactures, and installs customized, highly engineered flow-control product, and its partner Velo3D develops and supplies laser powder-bed fusion (LPBF) additive manufacturing systems. Following successful production and field-service deployment of a metal AM oil-and-gas part in 2021, the two worked together to expand this work to a distributed-manufacturing project. The goal was to prove that Velo3D Sapphire printers could solve the production scalability and readiness problem that limit many AM platforms — producing the same parts within specification across different printers, using the same print file, without any further development efforts. Success in that effort would give IMI Critical the confidence to scale its production accordingly, to reliably produce the same parts on any Sapphire printer anywhere in the world using the same print file.

The new project was based on the same choke valve, a high-pressure flow-control device used in water-injection wells to prevent issues with erosion, noise, and vibration. The component is a 3D-printed upgrade to a part originally manufactured by conventional means, such as machining and brazing. The AM redesign enhances the effectiveness of IMI Critical’s proprietary Drag technology, which manages destructive fluid-flow velocities through control valves. The parts were manufactured according to the highest criticality standards — AMSL Level 3 per API20S — set by the American Petroleum Institute (API).

“This one-year wait between finalizing the new valve design, and then deciding to print more of it at different locations, simulates the kind of fear that everyone in a global manufacturing company has,” said Steve Freitas, director of new product development at IMI Critical. “Time has passed, and you need to produce the same design in quantity again, but how can you be sure it’s going to be within specification without additional development and certification efforts?”

The Velo3D print file from the 2021 project, which includes all instructions for 3D printing it, was sent to six manufacturing sites — four in the U.S., one in Asia, and one in Europe.

The contract manufacturers (CM) were Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, Austin, TX; Duncan Machine Products, Duncan, OK; Knust-Godwin, Katy, TX; Avaco, in South Korea; and Schoeller Bleckmann Oilfield Equipment, SBO, in Austria. The sixth print run was performed at Velo3D in California.

Tight control at every step

  At each CM site, the Velo3D Sapphire system went through calibration checks to ensure predictable and consistent print outcomes.

  The locked, “Golden Print File” was loaded into each Velo3D Sapphire system; its set of laser instructions could not be altered at the CM site. This was the original Print file, with no alterations, from 2021, that was created using feature-based parameters assigned by Flow, Velo3D’s print-preparation software.

  Each build contained two parts and was printed on-site. Both the calibration processes and print execution quality are monitored by Assure, which is embedded in every Sapphire system.

  Build reports were automatically generated by Assure, which collects data from the 800+ sensors that monitor the build, ensuring that each build at every CM’s machine was executed consistently, and within the process-control limits. In the case of IMI/CCI’s choke valve, the data collected from Assure conforms to requirements prescribed by API20S, and integrated seamlessly within the OEM’s quality system.

  After-build de-powdering. Excess powder was removed from the parts in each build.

  The parts were then stress relieved and removed from the build plate. Additional heat treatments and machining were conducted at each location.

  Quality control includes dimensional inspection, mechanical testing, and flow testing of each valve.

  Dimensional inspection of the final part.

The results are in

Following these steps, collation of data for the 12 printed parts, two parts from each of the six production locations, was completed with these results: Mechanical testing and flow testing—along with destructive and non-destructive evaluation of the material coupons—demonstrated that all of the parts met IMI’s design and performance specifications, both metallurgically and functionally.

“We now have the confidence, whether it’s two weeks from now or two years from now, to print that same print file at any of these suppliers in the future,” according to Velo3D’s Zach Walton, director of technical business development. “With the Digital Product Definition, spelled out in API20S as a collection of data required to reproduce the additively manufactured component, unchanged from the 2021 project, this demonstrated the ability to not have to requalify or redevelop—which is a big win for the O&G as well as other industries trying to deploy distributed manufacturing.”

These results are an important benchmark in demonstrating that distributed manufacturing using advanced metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) technology is achievable in the real world.

Opening up the world for AM

The exercise clearly supports IMI Critical’s business goals, Freitas said. “Now that we’re scaling up our retrofit business around the world, we recognize the value of having an end-to-end AM solution that allows for scaled production without compromising quality and repeatability.

“We find the Velo3D approach to be very attractive in that regard,” IMI Critical’s Freitas said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time because we have qualified build recipes and print file instructions that are locked. It also saves costs due to not having to repeat qualification. This maintains IP for the print instruction file, which is increasingly important as we deploy globally.”

Now IMI Critical has moved on to other projects using the Velo3D network of CMs, 3D-printing parts such as a 12-inch gas-letdown valve for an offshore facility, and a 10-inch boiler feed-pump valve for supercritical power plants.

“We now have a more scalable supply chain for our global customers,” Freitas said. “Velo3D’s technology can print our legacy designs without having to requalify on new machines, allowing us to ramp production up and down as needed. That’s very effective for us, given our huge library of reference parts. We can also innovate more extensively as we update legacy designs. And we can now print really large parts, up to 24-inch diameter, with the new, larger Sapphire XC system. We’re very excited about the work that’s going on here and the way forward.”

Walton pointed out that the implications of the global project with IMI Critical extend far beyond the oil-and-gas industry. “Whether you are working in space, defense, power, or any other industrial environment, if you want to reproduce either an individual spare part, or a larger number of optimized, high-performance components, you may have similar future scalability problems that AM—and a worldwide network of CMs—can now successfully solve.”