Integrating 3D printing into the oil and gas industry

Point of view | 25 June 2020

The oil and gas industry has suffered from the recent COVID-19 pandemic as the demand for and price of crude oil dropped drastically over the past few months. Watching its revenues plummeting, corporations are looking for ways to not only improve operational efficiency but also reduce costs as much as possible. As other industries, such as automotive and aerospace, began to integrate 3D printing into their manufacturing processes, the oil and gas industry also started exploring the potential of 3D printing. In this post, we will be discussing the challenges faced by the oil and gas industry and how 3D printing provides solutions to those industry-specific issues. 

Overview of 3D printing in the oil and gas industry

The oil and gas segment referred to as “others” is still a little part of the Additive Manufacturing market (source: Lux Research)

The oil and gas sector (“other” in Figure 1 by Lux Research) represented a relatively small part of the $3.5Billion 3D printing market a few years ago. Even if a lot of projects have been conducted aiming at printing drillbits or heat exchangers, the adoption by the oil and gas industry is still in its infancy. Until recently, there was no need to cut costs and professionals were unable to identify parts or use cases that are financially and technically suitable for 3D printing. Nevertheless, the future seems pretty promising as 3D printing in the oil and gas industry is estimated to be worth $32 billion by 2025.

As a general guideline, manufacturers from other industries print parts with high complexity and small quantities. However, this practice is not entirely applicable to the oil and gas Industry due to the complexity of its supply chain.

Therefore, the oil and gas industry must develop its own “specific framework” to handle the multiplicity of related cases and technologies.

How is 3D printing applied in the oil and gas industry

Expedite product development

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3D printing has been widely used in different industries to rapidly produce prototypes of products. It accelerates the product development process by validating the designs faster and therefore shorten the development cycle in the oil and gas industry. This allows engineers to engage in multiple development cycles at the same time. For example, GE Oil & Gas managed to cut its product testing and validation process by 50% through 3D printing.

Design parts with complex geometries

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Engineers in the oil and gas industry design equipment with complex parts to meet the robust performance and environmental standards of the industry. However, traditional processes have their limitations. Parts are often produced separately and then welded together. For instance, some parts need to be produced in two halves to enable post-processing, such as machining of internal surfaces. Parts with very complex geometries cannot even be manufactured with traditional techniques. 

On the other hand, the flexibility of 3D printing allows engineers to design parts with complex geometry and enable single-part fabrication, thereby eliminating the need for assembly. Furthermore, these 3D-printed parts can be produced faster and have better performance compared to the traditionally manufactured ones. Components of turbomachinery and valves have already been 3D printed and proven to be more efficient. 

Minimize equipment downtime by addressing spare parts issues

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The oil and gas industry needs many components that are expensive to manufacture but do not have high demands. In addition to that, the wide geographical distribution of its operation makes sourcing and managing spare parts even more challenging. Failure to manage it well will result in financially catastrophic equipment downtime.

According to a study conducted by Baker Hughes, “offshore oil and gas organizations experience $38 million in financial impacts from unplanned downtime.” In order to avoid such significant financial loss, managers are compelled to keep a very high level of inventory due to the lengthy processes of procuring spare parts in the oil and gas industry. However, this will also lead to an increase in total cost of ownership

3D printing enables on-demand production that solves the spare parts issue in the oil and gas industry. By digitalizing their spare parts inventory, they can simply print the parts when they need them and the parts will be shipped to them within a short span of time since 3D printing machines can be deployed much closer to the location of operation. 

However, integrating 3D printing is not easy and adopting it will need 3 requirements.

Internal conceptualization: conceptualizing a specific framework for the manufacturer to identify cases that are suitable for 3D Printing. 

Partnerships: forming partnerships with specialist organizations, like Spare Parts 3D, who are used to dealing with additive manufacturing issues, in order to overcome technological obstacles.

Infrastructure: Investing in adapted infrastructure for 3D printing (worldwide research centres, facilities…) and acquiring technologic companies as well as collaborating with major players already implemented in other industries (automotive industry).

So far, the oil and gas industry continues to struggle with its 70% of the wasted material in the fabrication of technical parts. Through 3D printing, the industry will be able to expedite and transform its product development processes and supply chain to up their games.