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Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it’s commonly called, is showing up everywhere, including oil and gas, but is it all that it’s hyped to be?

What is Additive Manufacturing?

It would not surprise me to learn that few of the readers of this blog have ever heard of additive manufacturing. It’s a recent innovation, and is better known as a hobbyist plaything, but is moving quickly into the mainstream of manufacturing.

Additive manufacturing is a production technique invented about a decade ago. A 3D printer follows a digital design and sprays a thin layer of material (plastic, resin, composite, cement, steel) from a nozzle to build up an object of that material layer by layer.

Two key digital technologies come together to make 3D printing something of significance.

Cloud computing

The designs for 3D printed objects can be stored in the cloud and then transmitted directly to a 3D printer with access to the internet. Designs become collaborations between a customer, the designer, the engineering disciplines, materials specialists, the printer, the packaging team, logistics, the parts installers, and field service and maintenance working together on a single shared design.

Artificial intelligence

By incorporating artificial intelligence to the design function, designers and AI can co-design advanced shapes that meet increasingly complex business needs.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that 3D printers have been riding Moore’s Law themselves. Back in 2008, the slowest 3D printer cost $18,000. Today, the slowest 3D printer costs $400 and is 100 times faster. 3D printers show the same kinds of exponential performance gains as many other digital things.

Lots of worldly things can benefit from the potential of 3D printing:

Tires

major tire company has designed a new tire inspired by honeycombs that performs like a traditional tire but with a fraction of the material and without a need for air.

Shoes

Custom-fit footwear, particularly running shoes, have the potential unleash an entirely new industry of bespoke designs, colours and shapes for any need.

Eyewear

Like footwear, next generation eyeglasses made of composites will be 3D printed to match an exact head shape and design concept.

Toys

Playthings made of plastic and composites can be printed at home.

Art

Artists have discovered that 3D printing allows them to experiment with new shapes and designs that cannot be produced using conventional techniques.

Food

Elaborate desserts are 3D printed and presently available in the drive through in some Asian markets.

Engine parts

GE produces jet engine turbine parts using 3D printing because printing allows for more intricate parts, produced faster and to tighter tolerances.

Replacement parts

If you can find the design, or more likely, design it yourself via a scanner and design software, individuals can print off replacement parts for many of those little things made of plastic that break through use, and are no longer available from the manufacturer.

Valves

GE is printing some oil and gas parts including valves.

Weapons

The US Navy has 3D printers on board its ships because 3D printing a part is faster than having one shipped in. Of note, the Navy is running trials to print new submersibles for specific missions in a few days rather than the 6 months lead time from traditional supply methods. Marines use 3D printing in the battlefield.

Buildings

Really large printers use building materials like cement to print buildings, bridges and supports.

Show me the money

Businesses think there’s a lot of value at stake in 3D printing. First, 3D printing produces less waste. Only what is required is printed, unlike a traditional process that typically starts with a solid block of material and uses tools (like lathes and drills) to sculpt away scrap to reveal the final part. Less waste means less carbon invested in producing material that is ultimately scrap.

Second, if designed well, 3D printed parts are lighter in weight, and are less costly to ship around. Third, instead of producing multiple parts that have to be fitted together, 3D printing can often print a single complex part, saving manufacturing and assembly time, and more carbon from shipping multiple parts. Fourth, instead of waiting for a part to be produced and shipped from a factory, parts can be printed on site, saving time.

Other costs can be reduced. For one, setup time is eliminated. A 3D printer simply starts the printing process. Packaging for shipping will be reduced. Finally, inventories can be lower as items are printed just in time.

Additive manufacturing is simply more nimble, which is particularly important when time to market is a key driver. Imagine the potential when a famous basketball player is court side with his latest treads, and his followers on social media can visit their favorite shoe store the next day and print off a copy of those same shoes. 

The business impact on oil and gas

It’s not immediately obvious where 3D printing might impact oil and gas. This industry starts with extraction and adds a continuous processing capability to turn crude oil into useful products like gasoline and jet fuel. Product distribution is a supply chain function, with ships, pipelines, tanks and trucks. Oil and gas trade shows don’t give over a lot of stall space to additive manufacturing, based on my observations. The industry is used to having its kit made in large metal bending and hammering shops, with lots of forging and welding. However, I see two critical impacts:

Parts and equipment

Hard to replace parts, critical spares and rogue parts that chronically leak or fail frequently, could potentially be printed rather than machined, and save some time and cost by avoiding some unplanned downtime. Complicated equipment with many parts could be simplified by printing, although there are probably fewer such opportunities in oil and gas, as compared to, say, aircraft engines.

Taking a page from the Navy, off shore oil platforms and rigs could use a 3D printer on board to produce some of those minor items while gaining experience in designing and printing larger more composite items.

Many of the benefits from 3D printing will ultimately accrue to equipment makers and not directly to oil and gas companies, which may explain why oil and gas companies are slow to embrace this digital innovation.

Reduced demand for oil

The far bigger impact will be felt in the demand for oil. A tremendous amount of today’s oil demand (about 50%) is for transportation markets – planes, trains and automobiles. Much of that transportation is to move pieces and parts along supply lines.

Consider the hidden transportation costs in a running shoe. The design is from California, but the upper might be cotton sourced from Pakistan, which is woven and dyed in India, and cut in Viet Nam. Lowers may be cast in factories in Eastern Europe but stitched to the uppers in Chinese factories. Eyelets are punched out in Taiwan, laces might come from Colombia, with plastic eyes attached in China. The cardboard box is from the US, ink and labels are from Germany, final packaging is completed in southern China, and finally shipped to US markets.

This might be the most cost effective way to produce shoes a market wants, but it’s carbon intense. Researchers have tried to calculate how much carbon (GHG emissions) is in a running shoe, and they were shocked to find out that it’s measured in pounds per pair.

Industry accounts for 38% of global energy demand, and transportation accounts for 28% (of which a full third is road freight). Companies around the world are focused on figuring out their carbon footprint, and how much of their business model is attributable to global warming. At some stage, they will be asked to reveal how much carbon is in their products, and most won’t like the answer. I can anticipate that many will cast about for ways to become less of a carbon burden, and for some, additive manufacturing will be a key tool in their arsenal, because it shifts both their inside the fence carbon foot print and their outside the fence carbon pollution from their supply chains. The result will be a reduction in demand for oil as supply chains shift to move printing materials to the place of consumption where the finished product is printed, and not a finished product.

What should oil and gas do?

The easiest course of action for an oil and gas company is to wait for 3D printing to mature. The market will ultimately decide whether additive manufacturing has a role to play in oil and gas.However, oil and gas industry analysts such as the IEA, forecast that 3D printing will be instrumental in managing the carbon footprint of all industry, including oil and gas. The benefits are simply too big to ignore.

Here’s a few low cost, no-regret actions that oil and gas companies can take.

Get educated

Invite some 3D printing equipment makers to your next team meeting and get briefed on this technology, where it’s headed and key use cases.

Buy a low end printer and experiment

One of the tricks the Navy uses is to let their rank and file experiment with the printer. Sailors have invented a number of quite useful tools for on-ship life that save time and money, and improve safety. Invite your employees to experiment and learn.

Plug into the ecosystem

There is already an ecosystem of companies active in the maker economy. Make connections particularly those printing with metal and cement, the preferred materials for oil and gas applications.

Monitor industry

3D printing is being adopted quite widely but the impacts on oil demand are not obvious. Keep an eye on how leading companies, particularly those that are fashion sensitive, and the machine parts makers, retool their supply chains.

Encourage some trials

Procurement teams are generally risk averse – 3D printed parts may not meet procurement specs as they are written. Encourage Contracts and Procurement to purchase some 3D printed parts for some applications to see how these parts perform in the field.

Conclusion

3D printing is coming, and it’s coming fast. It will both help oil and gas with parts strategies, as well as destroy demand for oil. Oil and gas companies should get familiar with this new technology to see how best to leverage it.

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2 Comments
  • Glenn Wright
    Posted at 23:04h, 15 February Reply

    Fascinating. The cost of 3D printers is also coming down, and technological advances give them so much more utility.

    • geoffrey cann
      Posted at 08:36h, 17 February Reply

      Big industrials like chemical companies are keeping a close eye, but it’s the supply line of shorter run products that is most impacted.

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