ASME IAM3D Challenge Case Study: The Winds of Change

By Joshua Olesker/ASME Public Information

Teammates Narges Balouchestani Asli (left - U Toronto), Hargurdeep Singh (center - Sheridan College) and Radhika Sagar (right - U Toronto)

“Imagine your life without electricity,” urged Narges Balouchestani Asli of the University of Toronto to the gathered audience at the Montreal finals of the 2014 IAM3D Challenge. “No cell phone to connect you with your loved ones. No computer. No Internet.” Not to mention all the basics we depend on that require electricity – light, sanitation, refrigeration, health care, and on and on. 

Asli and her teammates Radhika Sagar of the University of Toronto and Hargurdeep Singh of Sheridan College had imagined it and wanted to do something about it. They found their IAM3D Challenge: creating an economically feasible, renewable, clean power solution to an economically poor but wind-wealthy country: Somalia.

Radhika Sagar (U of Toronto) discussing Winds project with unidentified audience member

The team learned that up to 90% of the Somali population has no access to electric power.  While one of the windiest countries in the world, Somalia presently derives none of its power from wind. Instead, 87% of its energy is harvested from burning traditional biomass-type fuels like charcoal and firewood. Somalia’s status quo struck them as ripe for change.

The ambitious, multi-institutional team entered the IAM3D Challenge to test their plan. The Challenge calls on mechanical and multi-disciplinary engineering undergraduates around the world to re-engineer existing products or create new ones using Additive Manufacturing techniques to minimize energy consumption and heighten efficiency.

Staggered Cross-hatching sparse double dense layers of the internal structure

In the end, the Canadian team received two awards for their project “The Winds of Change”: Best Re-engineering/ Collaboration and the People’s Choice award as well.

It was easy to see why “Winds” became a popular favorite. “Giving electricity to Somalia means giving them endless opportunity” Asli said. “We want to help improve their healthcare system, their society, their education – everything.” The team had put their engineering know-how in service of their desire to help their fellow people

Design Process

After months of reflection, the team decided to design a wind turbine, using additive technology to improve the economics of the project. They began research at Canada’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and found they would need wind rotor blades between 1 to 3 feet in length.

Wind Turbine Control Panel

But, said Singh, the design-and-build process of 3D printing is not so simple as just choosing a shape and then telling the machine to extrude it as a ready-made part.

“We discovered that orientation plays an essential role when making any kind of print,” he said. “We wanted a really smooth surface finish,” for the rotor, “…so we thought at first we should print it in a vertical orientation.”

That orientation did create a smooth end result, but the team found that applying material layers vertically builds them so that they end up fightingthe wind, which increases the potential for structural failure [see illustration].

After much experimentation, The Winds team settled on a flat horizontal print orientation to solve the problem. As a bonus, this approach eliminated the need for print-support structures.

Singh pointed out that the internal structure the Winds team had achieved for their rotor was made possible by the advent of 3D printing technology. “There’ is no way we could have achieved such tight tolerances before” 3D came on the scene, he said.

“We reduced the materials use by 80%,” continued Sagar. “We reduced weight by 39%. And as for production time, the injection molding company we contracted with  said they would need twenty-eight days for production and even thenit might not be enough. We beat that number by 98%. Overall, our three blades took about twelve and a half hours to print.”

The cost savings Asli, Sagar and Singh achieved were similar and dramatic. The price they were quoted by the traditional injection-molding company for the three blades was nearly $11,000.

Singh, Sagar and Asli 3D-printed their three rotor blades for about $203.

Dramatic though such improvements may be, the team’s ambition had been about more than optimization. “When we first met we didn't talk so much about technology,” said faculty advisor Scott Currie “It was more ‘what can we do to help?’ We always came back to people having to read by candlelight. How could we not try to address this issue?”

Like the rest of this winning team, Singh was thrilled by the potential he had now seen first-hand with the advent of 3D-printing technology. "It can be used in fabrication of mechanical objects, in the fabrication of houses, even food,” he said. “And now the phenomenon is moving toward bio-printing: lungs, kidneys and hearts, human tissues and synthetic materials. The question should really be: what can't it do?”