3-D Printing Has the Ability to Drastically Improve HVAC Design
It wasn’t long ago that 3-D printing seemed like the byproduct of a science fiction movie — but since the late 1980s, companies have been using 3-D printers to deliver fast, affordable, and accurate product prototypes.
Marketed as “rapid prototyping,” 3-D printing was conceived to meet the industrial needs of companies in the medical and transportation industries, but it soon spread to the automotive, aerospace, consumer, and HVAC industries.
With 3-D printing, HVAC companies can deliver more efficient, affordable, and creative products when compared to prior methodologies.
HOW IT WORKS
3-D printers interpret a software diagram before using plastic (or a different material) to construct a replica of the diagram. The time for production depends on the diagram design and materials used, but most 3-D printers can create a small, basic prototype in a matter of hours. This quick turnaround, in conjunction with their affordability and access, is helping to change the world of manufacturing.
3-D PRINTING FOR THE HVAC INDUSTRY
The ability to print parts and equipment with 3-D printers is changing the way the entire HVAC industry is approaching design. Now, HVAC companies have fewer time constraints because they can actualize designs with a 3-D printer in a matter of hours. And they aren’t limited with construction materials, either: 3-D printing can create products or prototypes using plastics, polymers, cements, and even metals.
DESIGNING FOR EFFICIENCY
Designing on 3-D printers is often less expensive and time consuming than manually creating prototypes or pieces. These printers can create custom pieces in a matter of weeks, whereas requesting custom pieces from a manufacturer could take a number of months.
3-D printed pieces are also more effective in terms of performance. When these pieces are created, the machine uses careful layering, so no seams appear on the finished product. Seams often create poor resistance and are prone to leakage, but a solid piece without seams can last longer and work more efficiently.
Designing with 3-D printing is also more environmentally friendly than traditional manufacturing methods. When pieces are created in single instances, there is less material waste and, therefore, less of an environmental impact.
DESIGNING FOR PERFORMANCE
3-D printing is more than just designing for efficiency; it’s also about designing for improved HVAC performance.
Traditionally, heat exchange in heating and cooling systems was addressed with complicated and costly tube-fin heat exchangers. But using 3-D printing can help create more efficient and more cost-effective parts. This was proven by a team at the University of Maryland in 2012 when they created a Webbed Tube Heat Exchanger (WTHX) by using a 3-D printer. Their prototype was made of plastic, which made the heat exchanger lighter and more reliable when compared to traditional heat exchangers.
To improve on its design, in 2016, another research team at the University of Maryland (in conjunction with 3-D Systems and the Department of Energy’s Building Technologies Office) used direct metal printing to create “unconventional” shapes that aided in better heat exchange. Their finished product was 20 percent lighter and 20 percent more efficient than anything the industry was using, proving that 3-D printing can offer HVAC professionals quality, dependable parts.
Although 3-D printing is primarily used for manufacturing HVAC components, it could eventually be used to produce complete units, including heat recovery ventilation units and air conditioners.
3-D printing has major growth potential in the HVAC industry, given its versatility and financial benefits. Here are some of the ways the HVAC industry can capitalize on 3-D printing:
- Improved Products: 3-D printed ducts and components can be created on a per-user basis. Use 3-D printing to design and customize products or pieces instead of relying on a one-size-fits-all solution.
- More Product Choices: There are infinitely more choices with 3-D printing. Component dimensions can be designed with specificity, and even the weight of a component can be changed by using different materials. Steel and aluminum are commonplace in HVAC design, but plastic is also a good option, especially for components like wall caps and soffit vents.
- Tax Credits: The Research and Development tax credit may apply to HVAC companies that are working with 3-D design. Also known as the “R&D tax credit,” it is reserved for companies that are exploring technological research for new or improved products and services.
- Fast Prototype Turnaround: Customers (whether B2B or B2C) may be more keen on doing business with a company that uses 3-D printing. Prototypes can be created quickly, and this can impress potential customers.
- Attract New Talent: 3-D printing is attracting a new type of HVAC expert to the field — specifically, engineers who want to design and create HVAC products.
3-D printing offers incredible potential, and if the HVAC industry leverages the technology, there could be big changes in design. If this upward trend in 3-D printing continues, it’s possible that HVAC customers may soon have on-demand HVAC components for repairing or upgrading their home heating and cooling systems.
Publication date: 7/16/2018