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3D printing plus simulation: less weight, more performance

Conventional rethought

Whether in the aerospace, automotive, transportation or maritime industries, lightweight construction is a key to drastically reducing energy consumption. A prime example is the hydraulic control block optimized by S.M.I.L.E Engineering GmbH. Smart ideas, digital engineering and additive manufacturing make it more than 75 percent lighter than its conventional predecessor.

Additive manufacturing processes hold huge potential for product development, especially with regard to lightweight solutions. Their attractiveness is reflected in the material saved during production, but above all in the significantly lower energy consumption during operation. The highlight: product performance can even be increased in the process.

By being open to new thing as well consistently using simulation-based engineering methods, companies can exploit the possibilities of additive manufacturing even further, as a project by the engineering service provider S.M.I.L.E Engineering proves. The example of an ordinary and traditionally manufactured hydraulic control block illustrates what can be achieved with new technologies, especially for conventional products whose innovation potential seemed to be exhausted.

Control blocks are a component that can be found several times in every hydraulic assembly. Since they have to be individually designed for each application anyway, the consideration of using 3D printing processes to exploit the additional design possibilities associated with them is obvious.

Weight savings through topology optimization
Volume saving without performance restriction
Reduction of pressure loss through flow analyses

No contradiction: less weight with better functionality

The technical challenges in such a project can be divided into two areas: One is the aim to save weight and therefore materials. The other is the functionality of the component, which must also be improved. Both aspects must be considered together if a really good and successful product is to be created.

A good basis for significant optimization of the control block was the fact that manufacturing restrictions are eliminated. Whereas previously the required channels were drilled or milled into a raw block and thus only straight connections with a constant or tapering cross-section were possible, additive manufacturing is much more flexible. It allows for curved connections, branching and undercuts, opening up entirely new options. By producing optimal connections between the individual ports, the pressure loss in the ducts can be reduced.  

This allows smaller pumps to be used, which has a positive effect on energy efficiency. Another advantage is that functional units such as pressure reducers, check valves and regulators are easier to integrate into the control block.

The example illustrates what can be achieved with new technologies, especially for conventional products whose innovation potential seemed exhausted.

Live simulation during design with Ansys Discovery

For the redesign and layout of the control block for additive manufacturing, Ansys Discovery software was primarily used, both to optimize the topology and to improve the control channels through flow analyses. Unlike the well-known Ansys expert programs, the intuitive live simulations with Discovery do not yet determine highly accurate numerical values. The simulation goal here is rather to make the tendencies of the physical behavior quickly and clearly visible. If required, these can be validated at the end with traditional Ansys tools. 

Live simulations can be performed directly in the design process at very early stages to find the right path to the desired functionality of the design. Likewise, it is easy to examine the effect of small or even larger changes. The fact that this is done practically in real time and even on the entire model is made possible by using the GPU processors of high-end graphics cards.

Increased performance through flow analysis

First, in the original model, the connections were separated from the control channels in order to create new channels that were as short as possible. Discovery was then used to optimize the flow pattern in the individual connecting channels, reducing the pressure drop in some areas by more than 50 percent. Not only did the shorter channels play a role in this, but also the improved flow behavior without sharp changes in direction. In addition, additively manufactured control blocks eliminate the so-called “dead ends” that have to be accepted in the traditional approach with bores.

The results could be validated with Ansys CFD. During the fast iterations with the live simulation, a wide variety of flow patterns could already be tested, and forms were found that also specifically avoid turbulence and detachments. Since a stable state is achieved more quickly, this also results in shorter switching times.

Weight reduction through topology optimization

After the channels were redefined, a topology optimization of the structure was performed to achieve the desired weight reduction. Different variants could be calculated very quickly and efficiently with Discovery, which is where the main benefit of simulation lies. At the end of the optimization process, it was not only over 75 percent lighter, but also around 25 percent flatter, which had a noticeable effect on the material requirements and the necessary installation space. This was achieved without the internal piping being fundamentally changed or other restrictions having to be taken into account.

The position of the functional surfaces also remained unchanged, so that the optimized control block could be integrated into the existing machine design without any structural changes.

Additive manufacturing = flexible manufacturing

Since every system that is operated hydraulically requires control blocks that have to be individually developed and manufactured, there is broad application potential. Especially for small series of complex control blocks, the motivation to choose additive manufacturing also increases from a financial point of view. Here, it is not necessarily decisive which optimization aspect - weight, pressure loss, switching times, acoustics - is in the foreground, because the other advantages can be used simultaneously as an addition without high effort.

S.M.I.L.E Engineering GmbH

Seit 2008 unterstützen die Berechnungsingenieure von S.M.I.L.E aus Heikendorf bei Kiel ihre Kunden und Partner, indem sie ausgereifte Konstruktionsentwürfe unter realen Bedingungen simulieren. Schwerpunkte bei S.M.I.L.E Engineering sind neben den Arbeiten für Konstruktion und technische Dokumentation, die statische Berechnungen der Festigkeit sowie der Betriebsfestigkeit, Schwingungsanalysen und dynamische Simulationen mit verschiedenen Ansys-Softwarepaketen.

S.M.I.L.E. Engineering GmbH
Knut-Michael Buchalle,
Geschäftsführer S.M.I.L.E. Engineering GmbH

Authors: Gerhard Friederici, Alexander Kunz (CADFEM Germany)
Images: © 2019/2023 CADFEM, S.M.I.L.E. Engineering GmbH
Published: January, 2023

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