How a small 3D-printed substation model became a big design challenge.

We make and design substations every day, and we use 3D software (Autodesk Inventor) to do all of it.

That means printing a 3D substation model should be a snap for us, right? All we have to do is send files to the company and they should be able to make a 3d printout of it?

“Absolutely not,” laughs Lindsey Morone, DIS-TRAN’s Marketing Manager. “Because our designs and details are so intricate, and since we’re designing for metal rather than plastic, it turned out to be a bit more difficult than that.”

Ultimately, Michael Bruce, Factory-Built Substation Design Analyst at DIS-TRAN and our resident Inventor guru, had to take a substation that we had designed in Inventor and completely re-construct and re-mold it. “We didn't realize that 3D printing today is designed to be done on a scale basis based on the size of the printer beds,” he says.

When you 3D print, the thickest material has to be at least a millimeter, but when you scale down a full substation design – which contains structures whose metal or steel walls might only be a quarter inch thick – down to the size of a 3D printer bed, those parts disappear entirely!“

That was one of the challenges that we had to address,” says Bruce. “A second challenge was figuring out how to print it in pieces like we would normally put the real-life structure together in our shop, but scaled down to size. We had to split the model structure into more pieces than we normally would use.”

A third challenge arose when we went to print for the first time. “We had printer material all over the place. It didn't know what it was doing. It was going berserk, actually,” says Bruce, “so we realized right away, in our first pass at this, that number one, we didn't know enough about what we were doing.

What helped: having a good printing resource. We turned to the professional 3D printers at Entrescan.

“They were able to tell us where we were having issues,” says Michael. “They helped us to understand the minutiae of the printing process and where it was trying to print air because it couldn’t read anything less than one millimeter.”

From there, we had to go through a process of thickening all the parts, while also maintaining some of the fine details that would have otherwise been erased by the scaling of the 3D printing process. “If you look at our model, you'll see a lot of small holes everywhere, related to the detail work like insulators and cables. The 3D printer did really good job of printing that kind of detail.”

Trey Richoux is the Chief Operating Officer at Entrescan. He says this is a pretty common conversation they find themselves having with their clients. "Often our clients think since they model in 3D every day they can just send that to one of our printers and it will work. That's not always the case," explains Richoux.

DIS-TRAN Packaged Substations made sure to clearly articulate our expectations for the model. We explained to Entrescan what we wanted our model to convey, how it would be used, and its value to our marketing and business development efforts. Outiling these objectives from the beginning of the project made the printing process move smoothly. "At Entrescan, our mission is to take the unknowns around 3D printing out of the equation. We know what every printer in our lab does really well, and leverage them accordingly. Once we knew DIS-TRAN's objectives, we just worked backwards from there," says Richoux.

Ultimately, Entrescan decided to use its Projet 2500Plus printer from 3D Systems for its ultra-high resolution capabilities and post-processing options.

Entrescan gave the DIS-TRAN team some design guardrails to consider, and then Entrescan was off to the races. The end result was a beautiful communication model that doe exactly what it is supposed to do: highlight a very complex system, show off the intricacies of what sets our design apart, and explains to our customers how pre-fabricated electrical substations are shipped and assembled. (Entrescan was able to paint and "color code" each piece of our 3D printed substation to help illustrate the convenience of our eXpress Power Substations to our customers.) "DIS-TRAN already had all of the tools in their toolbox, it just needed the right expertise involved in the project," says Richoux.

We started this process after seeing little 3D printed pieces, devices and models at trade shows. “We learned a lot more goes into that process than you realize!” says Michael. For us, successfully printing a 3D model mirrored the process of mastering 3D substation design using Inventor: in the early days, it took a lot of trial and error, but every step turned into a lesson learned and a challenge overcome.

“We have the scars from it,” Chris Ducote, Autodesk Inventor Development Manager at DIS-TRAN says of our past experience learning to use Inventor. “But in the end, it means we pushed ourselves to be better, more accurate and quicker at all the projects we undertake.”