The power of industrial additive manufacturing technology, or 3D printing, is felt in a wide variety of industries around the world. Included in this list is the oil and gas industry, despite some considering it a dying sector with the inevitable rise of renewables.
End-use parts in oil and gas, by nature of the field, tend to require chemical and heat resistance, and this is something 3D printing can provide. There exists a multitude of 3D printing processes that excel at fabricating parts made of metals such as Inconel and titanium and even polymers such as PEEK which display similar qualities. But who exactly is operating in this landscape, and what are the benefits?
Big names in fossil fuels
According to financial reports, British multinational oil and gas company BP is said to invest approximately $400M a year on research and development and commercial pilots and trials of new technology. As one of the world’s seven largest oil and gas publicly traded companies, commonly known as “supermajors” it invests a further $200M annually in energy-based innovation through its in-house fund BP Ventures.
Just last year, BP confirmed its use of 3D printing to manufacture chemical-contacting components for its petrochemicals business. The company previously began integrating additive manufacturing to produce parts within its chemicals division, including agitators used inside catalytic reactors.
Through the use of additive manufacturing, BP is now aiming to create pipes and additional components for its offshore platforms. The company is also exploring other industry 4.0 technologies as well as 3D printing, such as drones for routine inspections of pipelines in Alaska and “crawlers” – robotic devices used to monitor corrosion in pipes and risers.
Similarly, energy giant Royal Dutch Shell has previously announced a four-year pilot project at its Pulau Bukom refinery in Singapore to trial a ‘Digital Twin’ technology. The system, when fully implemented in 2024, is expected to boost productivity while improving reliability and safety. Shell's system will run alongside several other digitization technologies that the company has already implemented at the refinery, including 3D printing.
Metal 3D printing for oil and gas
China-headquartered Nanfang Additive Manufacturing Technology Co. has previously signed a contract with the state-owned petroleum company Tubular Goods Research Institute to explore the use of electron beam melting (EBM) for oil pipeline parts.
EBM, which is a sub-technology within powder bed fusion, is known for its ability to produce high-density, high-strength, and generally high-performance metal parts at relatively low costs (making it particularly suited to the application). Another major advantage of the process is its capability to produce parts that lack residual stresses, which can be a problem when dealing with cylindrical geometries and large cross-sections.
Prior to the contract, Nanfang had manufactured a prototype pressure vessel cylinder for a project with the country’s Nuclear Power Research Institute using a combination of metal 3D printing and CNC machining. Weighing in at 400kg, the prototype served as a precursor to the EBM project, which specifically involved the development of new EBM materials and their application to thick-walled, three-way pipe fittings.
Elsewhere, in the U.S., California-based 3D printer manufacturer VELO3D recently announced plans to collaborate with Oklahoma-based precision machining company Duncan Machine Products. As a parts supplier for the oil and gas sector, Duncan will use VELO’s metal additive manufacturing technology to improve its part performances while also reducing lead times.
The precision machining company has already received over 1500 orders to 3D print metal parts for downhole tools used in onshore and offshore oil exploration. Duncan has stated that it expects this number to increase up to tenfold in the next two years. VELO's flagship Sapphire 3D printer is currently being used as an alternative to the traditional method of investment casting, which requires a mold to be produced and doesn’t quite lend itself to the rapid design iteration that additive manufacturing is known to offer.
Over in Florida, 3D printing service bureau Sintavia has previously signed a term sheet with metallurgy specialist Howco to advance the capabilities of 3D printing in oil and gas. Sintavia, which mainly deals with energy, aerospace, and maritime clients, utilizes metal 3D printers from major players such as EOS, GE’s Concept Laser, and SLM Solutions. Now, the partners are in the process of jointly delivering the economic and technical potential of the technology for their customers via a mutually beneficial agreement.
The next steps for 3D printing in the energy sector
Admittedly, the oil and gas industry was one of the slower adopters of AM, especially when compared to automotive and medical. The last couple of years have seen major names such as BP and Shell making headlines, however, so it is likely that others will follow suit as trust in the technology improves over time.
Yes, rapid prototyping is of particular value to the industry, and AM can provide this like no other. As such, development cycles for critical parts can be shortened significantly, all while omitting production lines and clunky design iteration processes.
The key challenge that remains, however, is reliability in relation to standards. End-use components in regulated industries are constantly under heavy scrutiny, and a single critical part fracture can result in catastrophic failure, major monetary setbacks, and even loss of life. This is the big hurdle in the way of AM - industry certification. With a sector-wide push, completing the transition from prototyping to end-use component production may just be possible, all while meeting stringent performance and safety requirements.