3D printing

Anglian Water has become the first UK water company to explore the future of 3D printing technology. 

This was achieved through collaboration with The Sheffield Water Centre, an interdisciplinary research centre at the University of Sheffield, dedicated to solving major challenges in the water sector.

This project saw engineers in the University’s Departments of Mechanical Engineering and Civil and Structural Engineering working in partnership with Anglian Water to develop ways in which the emerging technology of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, could be used to produce vital parts more efficiently and at a lower cost.

An initial early test was carried out using a filter nozzle – a small but essential part of the water treatment process. Anglian Water’s Innovation team is now talking to its engineers to come up with a list of further essential parts for Sheffield’s team to work on. The team is also talking with the Dutch water company PWN which is using the technology to 3D print caps for fire hydrants which are regularly lost or broken.

Fionn Boyle, Anglian Water Innovation Technologist, said: “It’s early days but the potential for this technology in our industry is very exciting.

“You can foresee 3D printers being installed in our technicians’ vans in the future so that if they are out on a job and need a vital part they can simply download a file and print it out there and then. If we are in an emergency repair situation this could mean we can stop more leaks and return people’s water supplies much more quickly.”

Anglian Water has hundreds of plastic nozzles in the sand filter beds of its water treatment works, and replacing them can be a costly headache.

“If one nozzle needs replacing then all the others in the same bed must be replaced at the same time to ensure even wear,” Fionn explains.

“Also the original design may no longer be stocked by a manufacturer. But if we could simply scan in another nozzle and print out an individual replacement it would save time, money and also the carbon footprint of getting it shipped to us.

“There are hurdles to cross before 3D printing becomes widely used in the industry – including the patent issues associated with scanning and printing these parts. But it is essential we explore the possibilities now and learn about the potential pitfalls so that we can pave the way for it to be rolled out a few years down the line.”

Dr Kamran Mumtaz, Lecturer in Additive Manufacturing in the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering, commented: “Additive Manufacturing offers significant benefits over traditional manufacturing methods, offering greater flexibility in addition to time and cost savings.

“More research is necessary to fully understand the scope of the technology in the water industry but the project with Anglian Water demonstrates the possibilities and potential to radically alter and improve operations, benefiting both the water companies and ultimately their customers.”