DOE Turning to 3D Printing to Solve Wind Turbine Manufacturing Woes

October 27, 2023 by Jake Hertz

3D printing can solve challenges, including cost, material limitations, and scalability in manufacturing wind turbines.

As the global push for sustainable energy intensifies, the wind sector is at a crossroads. Despite its enormous potential, the industry grapples with manufacturing and design challenges that have impeded its growth, particularly in the United States. From the labor-intensive nature of wind blade production to the rigidity of traditional manufacturing methods, these obstacles have long acted as barriers to innovation and cost efficiency. 


3D printed wind turbine blades.

3D printed wind turbine blades. Image used courtesy of ResearchGate


However, a new initiative spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) aims to tackle these challenges head-on through 3D printing and modular design. This article examines the challenges facing wind turbine manufacturing and how 3D printing could be the solution.


Challenges Facing Wind Turbines

The wind energy sector faces a multitude of challenges that threaten to hinder its growth and broader adoption, particularly in the United States. 

One such challenge is the heavy reliance on manual labor to manufacture wind turbine blades. This labor-intensive process inflates production costs and makes the U.S. less competitive against countries with lower labor costs. As a result, a significant portion of this manufacturing activity has moved abroad, weakening the domestic industry.


The “Grand Challenges” facing the wind energy sector.

The “Grand Challenges” facing the wind energy sector. Image used courtesy of National Renewable Energy Laboratory


Another challenge lies in the scalability and adaptability of the manufacturing process. Traditional manufacturing methods struggle to accommodate the continuous changes in blade geometry and scale essential for optimizing energy capture. This lack of adaptability impedes the innovations necessary to meet the evolving demands of wind energy systems. The rigidity of conventional manufacturing also limits the speed at which new designs can be implemented, slowing down the overall progress of the sector.

Finally, material and design limitations further exacerbate these challenges. Traditional tools used in manufacturing wind blades are often heavy and less efficient, which restricts their performance and increases operational costs. The weight and design constraints also limit the length and efficiency of the blades, thereby affecting the overall energy output of the wind turbines.


How 3D Printing Could Be a Solution

To solve the many manufacturing-based roadblocks in the wind energy sector, DOE has begun investigating 3D printing. Specifically, the group wants to deploy extrusion deposition additive manufacturing, a 3D printing technology that employs carbon fiber/thermoplastic composites. This technology promises to transform the sector by automating the manufacturing process, thereby reducing the dependency on manual labor and making the U.S. more competitive globally.


3D printing could be key to more affordable and scalable wind turbine manufacturing.

3D printing could be key to more affordable and scalable wind turbine manufacturing. Image used courtesy of AMFG


A major promise of this initiative is modular construction. By 3D printing modules that can be assembled into larger structures, the technology allows for unprecedented adaptability in blade design. This modular approach enables rapid adjustments to blade geometry and scale, accelerating the design-to-market timeline and fostering innovation. The technology's inherent flexibility also makes it easier to implement design changes, thereby addressing the industry's need for scalability and adaptability.

The program has set ambitious performance targets to enhance efficiency and reduce costs. For instance, it seeks to cut down the time required for manufacturing and assembly by at least 40%, significantly speeding up production cycles. Additionally, the program targets a minimum of 15% enhancement in tool performance and a 35% reduction in manufacturing costs. These goals could catalyze increased investment in wind energy, making it a more attractive and viable option for sustainable power generation.


The Future of 3D Printing

While the program is investigating 3D printing technology today, they are also working on some technological innovations. These include the automation of 3D printing for large-scale modules, the development of robust joining technologies, and advanced lightweight composite materials to optimize blade performance and durability further.