Sparks

3-D printing disrupts old oil supply chains

 By Chris Dalby

The 3-D printer is touted by some as a miracle machine. By others, it’s fad soon to hit the scrapheap.
For the energy industry, however, 3-D printing has proved to be the little engine that could…

This technology is bringing about a sea change in the way oil and gas companies tackle everything from supply chain management to skills training.
SmarTech Publishing estimates that the 3-D printing market in the oil industry will reach $450 million by 2021, by helping the industry in a few key ways. These include simplifying the often complicated structure of oil and gas product manufacturing, reducing expensive downtime, and removing long waits for specific replacement parts.
Whereas, more often than not, new technologies are ironed out at the startup level before being adopted or bought by large players, 3-D technology has been an immediate hit with the supermajors.

Shell’s Technology Centre in Amsterdam is making unique parts for the company’s worldwide operations and has retrained a number of technicians to meet the demand.

3D printing in action at Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam

Joost Kroon, an instrument maker for Shell, says “we can make complex, innovative instruments that are impossible to make with other manufacturing technologies. The challenge for engineers is to think in terms of layers or slices, not in terms of taking material away.”

Another industry stalwart, GE Oil and Gas, integrated 3-D printers into its manufacturing supply chains a few years ago, reducing the time needed to get certain pieces from 12 weeks to 12 hours. Since then, the company has begun redesigning aspects of its research, development and production processes around the technology.
When it needed to develop a new burner for its NovaLT16 gas turbine, GE Oil and Gas found that using 3-D printers reduced the development and validation cycle by 50 percent. This saw GE Oil and Gas’ plant in Talamona, Italy, receive a new production line in 2016, using laser technology to 3-D print “end burners for gas turbine combustion chambers.”
Innovation becomes much easier when a 3-D printer can happily churn out physical copies of new schematics, allowing engineers to test designs and remove any kinks before running them up the ladder.

However, where Shell and GE have harnessed 3-D printing in their technology centers and existing plants, its full disruptive impact lies elsewhere.

FELIX 3D Printer (Jonathan Juursema, Wikimedia)

In remote locations, a wear-and-tear resistant 3-D printer could transform supply and logistics management—reducing downtime and consequently boosting profits. Smaller facilities that might be shuttered due to maintenance costs can now continue operating, as long as technicians have the knowledge to receive, print and install spare parts.
“A refinery can wait several months for a specialized valve to be delivered, but this approach can manufacture it on site within hours,” says Kroon at Shell. There are other advantages as well. Oil rigs could manufacture spare parts or new pieces on board and build them as one solid piece, rather than one with several components requiring installation. Distance from machine shops and trained experts would become a thing of the past, even though areas such as quality assurance would remain an issue.

Accenture believes the rise of 3-D printing could revolutionize patenting, with companies able to patent their inventions or new parts and upload them for anyone to use, pending the right fee.
“For oil field service companies, there is an opportunity to sell the digital representations of their tools or a license to print parts—much like a music label sells this right to iTunes,” Brian Richards, North America Energy Innovation Lead for Accenture, told Rigzone. However, some are wary of the pitfalls at play. In January, BP announced that a new team, led by its chief economist, Spencer Dale, would research how 3-D printing would change the way the oil industry’s interwoven global supply chains function. The logic behind this study is that freight transportation, which accounts for 39 percent of global oil consumption, may see a significant drop if 3-D printing capacities see a return to local production for local consumption.

3D printed propeller (Creative Tools, makerbot.creativetools.se)

But where other firms have embraced its advantages, BP’s stance considers the downside, with Dale saying that 3-D printing would be added to the growing range of disruptive forces considered by his team in their long-term forecasting, alongside factors such as rising use of electric vehicles and other forms of renewable power.
It is clear that 3-D printing does not only present advantages, it does indeed threaten to upend manufacturing and logistics, putting jobs at risk. Lux Research, a leading market research firm, predicts some oil executives might be a touch gun shy but will not halt 3-D printing’s forward march.

“Oil and gas executives cite industry size and structure, risk aversion and lack of infrastructure as key reasons for the slow adoption of 3-D printing,” wrote the firm in its report named “Assessing the Opportunity of Additive Manufacturing for the Oil and Gas Industry.” “The success of 3-D printing in the automotive and aerospace industries shows these factors are not insurmountable … the oil and gas industry’s growing focus on operational efficiency is driving change.”
In fact, oil and gas companies have an even better argument for rolling out 3-D printing, since they often own the petrochemical facilities needed to make the “ink,” most of which still comes from hydrocarbons. Supply managers are even being trained in terms of reducing delays by using 3-D printing.
This technology presents an inevitable next step for the oil and gas industry. Dating back to the rise of the rotary drill in the 1880s to drones taking to the skies above rigs in the 2010s, the oil industry has always moved forward. It should not stop now.

SEE MORE: Cutting the cost of solar power by Robin Wylie

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about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.