Additive Manufacturing

3D Printing in the Oil and Gas Industry

Just as additive manufacturing (AM) is increasingly utilized in the healthcare and aerospace industries, so too is it gaining acceptance in the oil and gas industry. A SmarTech report projects that AM oil and gas revenue will reach $450 million by 2021. Furthermore, analysts predict that such revenue in oil and gas will triple over the next few years, surging to $1.5 billion by 2025.

Fast prototyping of parts

One key benefit of 3D printing is the acceleration of product development. With AM’s capacity for rapid prototyping, companies are able to develop and validate their designs faster, thereby accelerating the design process and allowing enterprises to better react to emerging market opportunities.

Fast prototyping is of particular value in the oil and gas industry. It is often possible to employ agile 3D printing to shorten the development cycle of oil and gas components, thereby reducing the time it takes to proceed with full production. Rapid prototyping allows those in the oil and gas industry to engage in multiple design cycles and quickly test design concepts.

For example, GE Oil & Gas reduced its product testing and validation process by half when it used additive manufacturing to develop a new burner for the NovaLT16 gas turbine.

Ability to generate complex geometries

The oil and gas industry uses complex machinery that must meet robust performance and environmental standards. Additive manufacturing allows for innovative shapes and complex geometries that reduce the number of parts, thereby reducing assembly time, improving performance and improving emission reduction.

Traditionally manufactured components must be broken down into constituent parts to allow for proper post-processing. For example, to allow for the successful machining of internal surfaces, many components must be fabricated from two halves that are ultimately welded together. In contrast, 3D printing allows for single-part fabrication of flow control and other oil/gas devices.

Compared to investment casting, additive manufacturing allows for simplified manufacturing of pumps, turbomachinery, valves and other vital components can reduce costs and enhance performance. For example, the GE Oil & Gas Additive Manufacturing Laboratory in Florence, Italy, employs multiple direct metal laser melting (DMLM) machines to fabricate turbomachinery components.


Manufacturing spare parts

The oil and gas industry requires many low-volume components that are relatively expensive to manufacture, stock and replace.

As the oil and gas industry evolves, improved designs lead to shorter production cycles, which only increase the pressure on those responsible for stocking spare parts. In oil and gas, parts availability is key even as the problem of parts obsolescence looms larger.

Oil and gas operators face significant logistical challenges, due in part to the wide geographical distribution of operations across continents and oceans. The high cost of downtime only accentuates the parts supply challenge. Since the timely delivery of high-quality parts for maintenance and repairs is vital, most operators strive to minimize unscheduled downtime by maintaining large inventories of critical spare parts. Traditionally, it has been more cost-effective to overstock parts than to deal with extended downtime.

Additive manufacturing optimizes asset maintenance in a variety of ways. Increasingly, industry principals, suppliers and maintenance providers all pursue faster repairs and improved design quality through additive manufacturing. AM reduces warehouse stocks through on-demand printing. The attendant savings have more impact given the historical volatility of oil prices. Downturns increase the pressure to minimize inventories of spare parts.

The adequate stocking of parts for legacy components presents multiple challenges. Overstocking consumes company resources, while understocking may lead to crippling downtime. 3D printing is the perfect antidote to the ongoing challenge of sufficiently addressing the requirements of legacy installations. AM also addresses needs that stem from manufacturers that go out of business. In some instances, the quality of 3D-printed replacement parts exceeds the quality of the original ones.


Future potential for AM-3D printing in Oil and Gas

Downtime in the oil and gas industry is very expensive, particularly on remote and/or offshore rigs. Unplanned downtime costs an average offshore operator $49 million per year, according to one estimate. For some offshore operators, annual costs are much higher.

Additive manufacturing limits downtime through reduced lead times and supply chain enhancements. As the pursuit of new reserves takes oil companies to more remote locations, the prospect of on-site manufacturing becomes even more alluring. Drilling for oil and gas reaches impressive depths measured in miles. Many components on drilling rigs include multiple parts that must be welded, bolted or brazed together. The 3D printing of single-piece designs at remote locations could significantly reduce costs and downtime.

When a single, critical component unexpectedly fails at a remote location, the costs associated with remedying the situation are often very high. Sometimes, a single crucial part must be flown many miles to the oil/gas installation. The key is to maintain the quality control standards of a factory at a drilling rig.


Challenges for AM-3D printing in Oil and Gas

As 3D printing innovation appears in the oil and gas industry, the need for input from field workers is helpful. Successful 3D printing in oil and gas requires an initial stage of identifying which parts and components genuinely benefit from the considerable advantages of additive manufacturing.

Even as 3D printing injects efficiencies into parts acquisition and distribution, the AM process also raises legal and regulatory concerns. To maintain rigorous performance and safety standards, industry certification of 3D printing materials is a potential hurdle. It is challenging to complete the transition from using additive manufacturing for prototyping to using it in the efficient production of end-use parts, which must meet robust performance and safety standards.

Traditionally, manufacturers either owned intellectual property or licensed it, and they produced components at centralized facilities. Using digital data to print parts at disparate locations raises concerns over the proper use of intellectual property. One way to deal with intellectual property is to use the “iTunes” approach. Just as an artist licenses the right to download his/her music, so too could oil service companies license the use of the CAD data required to print replacement parts.