Energy Sector

Your masterclass in product design and development


Protolabs’ Insight video series

Our Insight video series will help you master digital manufacturing.

Every Friday we’ll post a new video – each one giving you a deeper Insight into how to design better parts. We’ll cover specific topics such as choosing the right 3D printing material, optimising your design for CNC machining, surface finishes for moulded parts, and much more besides.

So join us and don’t miss out.


Insight: Energy Sector


Hi and welcome to the next insight video in our series.

If you’ve been watching these videos for a while now, you may have noticed we’ve been taking a look at how different industries can make use of digital manufacturing. Today, we’re moving onto one of those sectors we all rely on, but don’t often think about – the energy sector.

Now, there’s a whole heap of different kind of businesses lumped together under “energy”, all the way from traditional oil-fired power plants through to cutting-edge solar and wind projects. As you might expect, this can make for a pretty diverse set of requirements. However, these do have a few common requirements for the parts they use – they want them to be as reliable as possible, and they need to be supplied as quickly as possible.

Not much to ask, eh?

There are a fair few different factors that feed into achieving this, but I don’t have forever to sit here and talk about all these, so today we’re going to focus on just two of them – the technology and the materials.

Right then. Technology.

One of the most common methods for making parts is CNC machining. This has been used for decades and does just what many applications want – it produces accurate, high-finish bits of kit that are going to handle stress and strain without complaint. It’s particularly good at handling threading, which crops up in plenty of parts in the oil and gas sector.

Next up, injection-moulding. This is much more about plastics than metals, and is used to make parts that require highly engineered materials that can handle exposure to chemicals or corrosive conditions without failing. It’s also nice and fast, and easily repeatable, so is good for making parts that get used regularly – things like seals or housings - that kind of thing.

Finally, we have 3D printing. This has a whole pile of benefits it can offer in general, which you can probably find me chatting about in another video, but there’s one big, big thing that makes it particularly useful to the energy sector – making discontinued or obsolete parts.

This is important because plenty of power plants and other energy sites rely on aging pieces of kit to keep running. When parts for those machines wear out or break, finding replacements can be tough. In fact, sometimes it can be close to impossible.

In comes 3D printing to save the day. With a bit of work, you can use it to recreate discontinued parts and give an older machine a new lease of life.

And don’t think this is limited to plastic, either. With modern tech we can make high-quality metal parts too, and because you don’t need machining or moulds you don’t need to pay through the nose if you only want a handful of them made up.

Right, I’ll give you a moment to recover from that revelation, and then move onto a quick run-through of a handful of the most common materials we see being used in the energy sector.

First up – good, old-fashioned steel. It may not be the hi-tech kind of stuff you’re used to us talking about in these videos, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get the job done. Wind turbines make heavy use of steel as it’s strong, safe and effective, as do the mounting structures of utility-scale solar projects – think about those big solar farms.

Many of these applications take advantage of the extra corrosion resistance offered up by stainless steel – after all engineers don’t particularly like the idea of having to do more maintenance up a wind turbine than they have to – while the oil and gas industry likes the strength and durability offered by carbon steel.

If you want a fancier material, Inconel 718 – a nickel super alloy - is a great choice for the oil and gas sector in particular. It’s got good tensile and rupture strength as well as temperature resistance, and is used in in turbines. Also, it handles being exposed to extreme environments better than most metals.

Finally, we have a plastic. Polyether ether ketone – known as PEEK – it’s a great little material that can be used in plenty of different applications. It’s strong, has good wear resistance and can stand up well against super-heated steam, which makes it incredibly useful when you’re making gears, valve seals and bearings in the oil and gas sector.

Right. That was a lot to get through in just a few minutes. So with that I’ll wish you a great weekend and see you again next week.



With special thanks to Natalie Constable.