3D Printing and What It Means for the Oil Industry

3D printing can be defined as a process through which a three dimensional part or product is created using computer-aided design. What started off as a mere theory in the 1980s is one of the fastest-growing applications in several industries today. It is difficult to imagine that it has only been 40 years since this innovation was discovered.

In the year 1981, Hideo Kodama discovered a technique to make 3D products utilizing a way to print in layers in Japan’s Nagoya Municipal Industrial Research Institute. However, he could not get a patent approved for his finding. Simultaneously, CILAS and GE realized the means to create 3D-printed products but gave up their research since they could not visualize its application in any form.

Charles Hull, an engineer from America, finally patented the SLA 3D printer in the year 1986. He made a prototype using photopolymers through the SLA (stereolithography) process, in which he exploited ultraviolet lights to furnish a reliable product from acrylic-based liquid materials. Doing this, he earned the title of ‘the father’ of three-dimensional printing.

This was the time when the foundation for 3D printing was strengthened by two other technologies that were developed and patented, known as the SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), which created 3D products from granular powder, and FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) that used heat to form 3D objects.

Through continuous studies and research, there were improvements made and new techniques like sprayed materials and microcasting paved the way for metal to be added to the list of raw materials that could be incorporated in 3D printing. And that opened several doors for a bigger and brighter future for this technology. It started to adapt and steadily became an essential component of the aerospace, healthcare, energy, gas, and oil industries.

Importance for the Oil Industry

According to a report shared by GlobalData, a consulting firm, and SmarTech, 3D printing in the oil and gas industry, officially termed as additive manufacturing, is projected to grow to 450 million US dollars within 2021, 32 billion US dollars by the year 2025, and 60 billion US dollars by 2030 worldwide.

Although the oil industry adapted additive manufacturing early on, the research and development of 3D printing using metal rather than just polymers boosted its prevalence by multiple times. As analysts predict, the future of 3D printing in the oil sector is glorious and comes due to the numerous benefits it offers to this realm. Some of these advantages are highlighted below:

Swift Prototype Solutions

Acting quickly at a research and development stage is beneficial to any industry, especially for the oil industry, where the cost of upkeep is huge. Here, 3D printing plays a crucial role, as it accelerates the product development process. Thanks to the swift sequence of prototyping, the designers are able to do trial runs by developing different models of their designs and testing their efficiency.

Earlier, they would’ve had to make one version at a time due to the expenses involved in the entire process, which resulted in a delayed research and development timeline. On the other hand, now, with 3D printing, they can easily speed this up to fabricate different versions of the same component, which makes it easier for engineers to validate what works and take more informed decisions. A prime example is the 50 percent reduction of the product development, testing, and validating timeline for the production of the new burner that GE Oil & Gas developed for the NovaLT16 gas turbine.

Playing with Geometry

Before additive manufacturing was part of the oil industry, it was difficult to imagine making heavily complex designed components, as the casting and welding process would not even allow for such parts to be fabricated.

Designers would have to rely on simplified parts that could be successfully joined together and manage to survive daily wear and tear. This was hindering the progress the company could make if they had a more innovative, out-of-the-box solution that could be translated into a physical component.

However, with 3D printing, designers and engineers have the levy to now work freely on their imagination and use their creativity to come up with the most complex geometries that they feel can enhance functionality.

Since the oil industry has stringent environmental and performance standards for their equipment, developing innovative tools has a vital contribution in using fewer components, minimizing assembly time, and increasing the efficiency of machinery.

Spare Parts Manufacturing

Firstly, the oil industry’s geographical locations and distribution all over the world present a huge logistical challenge to cater to. Because of this long travel time, in most cases, companies prefer to maintain a high-stock inventory of critical spare parts, rather than be stranded with an extended downtime in case of a breakdown. This becomes more important since the operational cost of a downtime supersedes the extra investment required to overstock spares.

Secondly, the oil industry needs several low quantity parts, which can prove costly to make, maintain inventory, and keep fulfilling. As the industry progresses, there are new designs that come up to help in the reduction of production cycles.

However, this puts even greater pressure on the inventory of spare parts that would already be in stock. These components are paid for in anticipation of the requirement but would now be redundant as better parts are replacing these.

The adaptation of 3D printing or additive manufacturing in the oil industry has led to a perfect solution for both these problems. Having additive manufacturing set up within the location ensures that there’s a much shorter timeline for spare part manufacturing and that overstocking components is not required. This not only improves the repair and service timelines but also reduces the financial burden the firm would have to bear in maintaining overstock levels.

Reduced Wastage

In the additive manufacturing process, the wastage of resources is minimal since the metal grains that aren’t used in the component being made can be stored and treated to be reused. This is a big factor that makes 3D printing a more conscious and sustainable manufacturing procedure.

With global pressure on the oil industry to become more environmentally aware, manufacturers who reduce wastage by incorporating innovative manufacturing processes show that the sector is also conscious about the impact it has and is working towards being more sustainable in their functionality.

Current Challenges of 3D Printing

Along with a full host of opportunities for dependent industries, a new technology also comes with its own set of challenges, most of which stem from the latter’s ‘newness.’ It’s no different for the oil and gas industry when it comes to 3D printing. Following are some of those challenges:

Parts Manufacturing: Total vs Selective

It is no secret that just about any part, big or small, can be manufactured through 3D printing. But that doesn’t mean you forgo traditional manufacturing techniques altogether. Just because you can build virtually any component with 3D printing doesn’t necessarily imply that those parts will turn out beneficial to the organization, at least not until the part in question has been put through a rigorous series of tests.

Moreover, the dependence of the oil and gas industry on traditional manufacturing processes is one that has stood the test of time. Today, smaller businesses with years of experience form the strongest link in the production chain for larger corporations. Completely changing over to 3D printing overnight might sound great in theory, but in practice, it will only derail the entire production process, one which neither party can afford.

Hence, a more prudent solution would be to selectively identify parts for additive manufacturing based on genuine benefits to the organization and have the rest come through the traditional means.

Legal Concerns and Regulatory Compliance

Traditional manufacturing processes for the oil industry have been around for several decades now and, therefore, have gone through numerous cycles of design and developmental shifts to keep pace with evolving and often stringent performance parameters and safety standards.

Conversely, the concept of 3D printing came about in the 1980s, whereas its real-world applications for the oil industry are far more recent. So while there might be great promise, the technology simply hasn’t had enough time to fully set itself up with presently prevailing regulations.

Based on the above differences, additive printing is going to face legal and regulatory hurdles until it has fully assuaged the fears of its most vocal critics in the industrial sphere.

Impact on IP Rights

Today, high performance, precision 3D printers make it highly affordable to produce parts in-house and at a low cost. This also means that any party with additive manufacturing technology can reproduce copies of an existing constituent of a machine, even if the concerned part is protected by a patent, copyright, or trademark.

Without proper checks and balances, the innovation can adversely impact intellectual property (IP) rights of individuals and corporations in the manufacturing industry. Also, since the manufacturer, in many cases, also happens to be the end-user, there is very little that someone can do to prove infringement.

Entry Barrier Due to Specialist Knowledge

3D printing, being a relatively new technology, is rapidly and constantly going through cycles of research and development. Due to this evolving landscape, finding the right knowledge partner is quite a challenge. Consequently, it might create an entry barrier for organizations that want to incorporate the latest technologies relating to their specific manufacturing fold.

With regards to the oil industry, this can mean a high demand for the latest cutting-edge design for pump casings, valves, etc. but with a small number of people with the know-how to produce the same designs.

Potential of 3D Printing in the Oil Industry

As the oil and gas industry looks to explore farther and deeper to extract crude oil and natural gas, the importance of well-oiled and fully functional offshore rigs becomes that much more pronounced. In such a scenario, unplanned downtime owing to broken machine parts costs companies millions of dollars in loss every year.

As 3D printing technologies evolve, they can be used for on-site manufacturing, provide ready replacements for broken parts, and reduce the overall downtime drastically.

Drilling for oil and gas reaches great depths when measured in miles on such rigs. This naturally means multiple parts need to be brazed, bolted, or welded together. Then, there are unexpected failures with smaller critical components, and traditionally, they are flown into these remote locations. Now, if these small components and single-piece designs could be 3D printed on-site, then that would save both time and money.

As engineers in the energy domain pursue more additive-manufacturing-oriented designs, it will naturally lead to the more efficient production of components. This becomes all the more critical, given the complex needs of the oil industry.

Thus, the explored benefits of 3D printing for oil, gas, and energy companies can positively impact their supply chain and drastically bring down unplanned downtimes, so long as they find ways of maintaining the quality control standards of their on-site manufacturing units.

Industry Application

The oil industry is one of the most widespread, with billions of individuals depending on it. In the past decade, the demand for crude oil itself has increased by more than 15 percent. So, it’s no wonder that oil is termed as the engine’ driving the economy of the world today.

This huge demand within the oil industry makes the producers and others involved in the market constantly look for ways in which they can increase efficiency and reduce the costs involved. Industry giants like Exxon Mobil, Shell, and BP, have been turning to advanced technology within their researcgh and development to yield beneficial results, and 3D printing has been one such emergence embraced by the sector wholeheartedly.

According to BP, additive manufacturing or 3D printing was one of the six major breakthroughs that would impact the energy realm significantly in the years to come. This list featured technologies like blockchain, artificial intelligence, alternative energy resources, and autonomous vehicles.

Some examples of how the industry has used 3D printing effectively are:

Shell Connector

Joost Kroon, the mechanical instrument engineer who leads the research team at Shell Technology Centre in Amsterdam, designed a connector part using 3D printing, which eliminated the need for external heat supply and provided a solution in the form of an internal heat source within the connector. He was working on a prototype that would help in the removal of liquid mist being formed with the gas while creating high-valued chemical elements by breaking down the refinery’s by-products. If done traditionally, the mist could create blockages and damage the analyzer.

The 3D printing solution he designed was ready in almost 60 hours, where conventional methods of design and development of the component would have taken at least several weeks.

Shell’s Stones

Stones refers to a huge project by Shell in the Gulf of Mexico, which is their deepest oil and gas setup. It used 3D printing technology during their prototype stage, where they developed components of the detachable system of connecting the pipelines extending from the seabed with the offloading vessel to ensure safe functionality and prevent any kind of mishap or delays. This proto helped Shell present the concept and showcase its functionality in front of US authorities and receive approval to start the project.

Exxon Mobil SmARt Engine

In collaboration with Milk Lab, Exxon Mobil has developed the SmARt Engine, which is an additive manufactured engine that revs up with a key turn and grabs the attention of the mechanic while salespeople explain the advantages of using the motor oil Mobil1.

GE Talamona Plant

GE has observed that incorporating 3D printing in their research and development has led to a 50 percent decrease in the timeline, as compared to the traditional component manufacturing method that they followed earlier. A case in point would be the usage of additive manufacturing to print end burners for the combustion chambers of the gas turbines in their Italian plant located in Talamona, along with various other parts they manufacture for usage in gas and oil operations.

Future of 3D Printing in the Oil Field

As we can understand from the above details, the usage of 3D printing or additive manufacturing is increasing at a steady pace. The global value of the manufacturing market is estimated at more than 13-15 trillion US dollars, wherein studies show that the 3D printing market is projecting a growth of approximately 88 percent within the years 2025 to 2030.

Analysts have observed that 3D printing is a key technology that will drive the productivity of the oil industry by leaps and bounds. Although it started at a slow pace, over these years, the energy, gas, and oil industry has woken up to the myriad of advantages that 3D printing offers for their day-to-day working.

Lower inventory requirements, faster research and development turnaround time, reduction in costs of manufacturing, negligent downtime losses, and more innovative solutions to increase efficiency are essential benefits that 3D printing brings to the table. These are factors that not only facilitate smooth functioning, but also ensure sustainability and optimal resource usage.

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