3D Printing Revolutionizing the Oil and Gas Industry one Nozzle at a Time

Since the last 3 years which foresaw the global drop in oil prices, the Oil and Gas industry has faced multiple challenges that ensured it was no longer business as usual for organizations in its industry. The large profits which generally surpassed the cost of oil speculations, drilling and refining process is slowly but surely been eroded by alternative energy sources and the drop in oil prices. And this has led stakeholders in the industry to begin exploring different ways to cut operational cost which will ensure that profit percentages still remain relatively great.

To accomplish this, the Oil and Gas industry—which is basically populated with engineers—have dallied with diverse emerging technologies with the aim of streamlining the drilling and refining process in such a way that overhead cost is reduced. And one of these emerging technologies happens to be additive manufacturing. This is due to the fact that a lot of complimentary industry verticals have applied the tenets of 3D printing to achieve great success. Stories of reduced operational cost through iterative manufacturing and the drastic reduction in time associated with production cycles finally cut the ears of stakeholders in the Oil and Gas sector thereby sparking the need to invest in 3D printed solutions for future use.

Making Traditional Drill Manufacturing Processes Obsolete

The traditional process of manufacturing drill bits in the Oil and Gas sector involved sculpting through a chunk of graphite using CNC machines as well as by hand. The process requires approximately a team of 10—including designers, engineers etc.—who will be tasked with fixing a precise array of cylinders inside a mould using clay, then the clay will be chiselled out to form the cylindrical spiral patterns which creates the space needed for fixing the drill’s teeth to.

This process was by no means a walk in the park for it took the combined effort of 10 professionals, approximately a million dollars and a month to build a drill bit and ensure it functions properly. These were the challenges Halliburton took on, when it attempted to redefine the process of manufacturing drill bits for use in its oil fields. Its engineers came up with a concept for a better drill bit and enlisted the help of additive manufacturing to bring this concept to life. And at the tail end of 2014, Halliburton succeeded in its endeavour to 3D print its Matrix bit which it quickly patented to protect it as an intellectual solution to drilling for oil.

Developing Smaller Components with 3D Printing

The pace Halliburton set with the manufacture of its drill bit sparked some competition among stakeholders in the Oil and Gas industry as powerhouses such as Shell and General Electric stepped up their 3D printing game. Although they haven’t taken on larger projects, General Electric successfully 3D printed nozzles which play some important roles in its fuel injection program as well as in oil rigs.

The success of this 3D printed nozzles can be seen from the fact that GE has put its product on the market for purchase and have also earmarked   to pursue innovative ideas that involve the use of a 3D printer to come to life. This highlights the revolutionary role of additive manufacturing in the sector and some of its benefits include:

Enhancing Product Development

The development life-cycle of a product depends on a concept, iterative design and creating a working prototype. Where 3D printing comes into play in this process is during the iterative design and rapid prototyping stage because at this moment, failing forward us the key to developing a working prototype. In the development of Oil and Gas components, 3D printing supports rapid prototyping and ensure that an organization can quickly develop a viable product, analyse its flaws and 3D print the enhanced product in record time.

Halliburton’s Matrix drill bit is a great example of how 3D printing can aid the rapid prototyping of otherwise difficult concepts thereby reducing the time spent in developing components for the Oil industry.

Simplifying Iterative Design and Mass Production

When designing smaller components such as fuel nozzles, slip rings and gate valves, that also play a key part in the Oil and Gas sector, the ability to complete them as quickly as possible is key. This is because most of the producers of these components do so for commercial purposes whereby making a case for mass production.

With a 3D printer, a manufacturer can simply try out different concepts and designs to see how they come out. The perfect designs can now be fed to a 3D printer and it continues the production if these components en-mass with little margin of error thereby giving manufacturers a head start against others who work with more traditional manufacturing processes.

3D Printing Reduces Time and Cost

Taking the example of Halliburton as a case study once again, the manufacturing process of the Matrix drill bit was completed in record time. The drill bit was produced in approximately 50% less time than it would have taken to manufacture it using CNC machining or mould casting. Also important to note, is that the entire 3D printing process and materials used saved Halliburton approximately $500,000 when compared to the traditional manufacturing processes.

Therefore, in terms of minimizing cost, the Oil and Gas industry has a lot to benefit from additive manufacturing for the polymers or materials used during production can always be reused if things go wrong. This is unlike cast moulding it chiselling graphite which would require a new set of materials to restart a project if something goes wrong.

The revolutionary abilities of 3D printing is one that cannot be overlooked by the Oil and Gas industry in this age of steep competition with other energy sources. And as the additive manufacturing process continues to be integrated into more laboratories across the globe, the Energy sector will be given the boost it so sorely needs to remain as profitable as it was a decade ago.

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