3D Printing Brings New Opportunities and New Challenges to the Oil & Gas Industry

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3D printed oil pump prototype.

3D printed oil pump prototype.

As with most modern businesses, the Oil and Gas (O&G) industry has begun adopting 3D printing technology into its regular workflow in several key areas. It has proven itself to be a valuable tool for the production of custom, one-off or small run components as well as reworking existing designs to create something more refined and streamlined. While the technology hasn’t advanced to the point where additive manufacturing can replace traditional manufacturing, the industry has found plenty of other uses for the technology. The primary use for the moment seems to be rapid prototyping, which dramatically reduces both cost and turnaround time for developing prototypes.

There are few industries that operate on the sheer scale of the many businesses that make up the O&G industry. The development of related technology and production of equipment and machinery is a constantly evolving process with the goal of harvesting and transporting oil and fuels more efficiently with less waste. The freedom that 3D printing brings to the industry in regards to the advancement and development of new products simply can’t be understated, and it is quickly proliferating every aspect of the business.

3D printed fuel nozzles for oil extracting machinery.

3D printed fuel nozzles for oil extracting machinery.

Some of the longer-term applications for 3D printing in the O&G industry are expected to completely transform the way that components for a wide range of essential equipment and machinery are produced. Companies have been looking into using 3D printing technology to reconceptualize parts and components, the development of augmented manufacturing processes and instant, on-demand manufacturing. 3D printing is also playing an increasing role in the O&G industry’s research and development activities, and that trend is expected to expand to oil and gas operators, oil field service providers and OEMs.

Soon companies will no longer need to wait for replacement parts but will have the ability to 3D print them on-location when needed. Having 3D printing technology on-site will eliminate long waits in areas where standard parts are going to be in short supply or where shipping and customs clearance issues are likely to delay parts from arriving quickly. On-site 3D printing can also be used to create new parts for use in drilling, where flexibility and adaptability are both important to the successful extraction of oil. Not only will this speed up the process, but it could potentially save millions in lost profits from lost work that can often be attributed to malfunctioning or damaged machinery. That can translate into higher profits for the company, and likely lower oil prices for customers.

Offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

Offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, there will be some challenges that O&G companies looking to adopt 3D printing technology will need to address. Because 3D printing technologies rely heavily on digital information, IT leaders will need to play an important role in any newly integrated technology. IT staff will need to create a strong and secure digital infrastructure to manage the company’s 3D data. Engineering teams will also have to prepare digital assets for on-site use as well as develop new products that leverage the freedom of designing for additive manufacturing without sacrificing performance or safety.

Until adequate solutions for any potential issues related to the security and confidentiality of intellectual property are found, 3D printing will probably not expand beyond the projected numbers. Licensing and manufacturing guidelines for the legal and safe reproduction of parts manufactured using 3D printing are only in the early stages, and most of the industry leaders are only just beginning to address the issue. Unfortunately, until their intellectual property, 3D files and 3D data can be secured, O&G companies are going to only move cautiously into the adoption of large-scale additive manufacturing.

3D printed oil processing facility conceptual model.

3D printed oil processing facility conceptual model.

“With increasing adoption of 3D printing, intellectual property issues will undoubtedly loom large in the future. O&G, as well as oilfield service, companies must enable intellectual property protection, especially within the engineering domains. CIOs and other IT leaders will need to address issues such as preventing intellectual property theft and counterfeiting, ensuring the durability and high performance of 3D-printed parts and enabling collaboration and involvement of enterprise architects with engineering and operations personnel to implement security best practices,” wrote research director for Gartner’s Upstream Oil and Gas Industry Advisory Service Morgan Eldred.

Despite these obstacles, the future of 3D printing technology with the O&G industry is bright, and expected to continue to expand in the next few years. Technology and research company Gartner is even predicting that by 2019 more than ten percent of all O&G companies, including oilfield service providers, will be transitioning from traditional manufacturing methods to more advanced additive manufacturing methods. This shift is expected to be reflected across all of their various operations throughout the industry. Discuss in the Oil & Gas 3D Printing Future forum over at 3DPB.com.

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