Gulf of Mexico: Shell Uses 3D Printed Prototype for Very Complex Planning in Stones Deepwater Project
3D printing is definitely today—and tomorrow’s—tool for the engineer. Allowing for rapid prototyping, greater strength in project and product design, as well as the creation of new parts and components, this technology may one day be sitting on the office desktop of every engineer, architect, and designer—and currently, 3D design and 3D printing are a focal point as new and necessary skillsets for those poised to graduate and enter the workforce.
For engineers at Shell Global, in a recent challenge, the use of 3D design and printing meant allowing for some pretty complex strategizing onsite, promising better safety too—along with the bonus of all of the fundamental benefits of 3D printing—from big savings on the bottom line to previously unheard-of customization options and independence in making their own 3D models. The use of 3D printing is allowing Shell overall to examine not just project budgets, but also how they proceed overall in both design and final execution.
“Digital design and 3D printing offer scope to build more efficient prototypes, which we transform into products in their full physical form,” says Shawn Darrah, Shell Innovations Adviser.
Rather than a case where they were creating a new or replacement part, Darrah and his team’s recent uses for 3D printing during the Stones deepwater project allowed for greater ease in dynamics as the crew made a prototype for a very complicated system which would have to be approved.
“A fundamental part of the engineering and design process is to visualize what an end product will be,” says Robert Patterson, Executive Vice President of Engineering for Shell. “3D printing allows for very rapid prototyping. It allows you to really engage with a design installation sequence, and the safety risks associated with putting it together.”
“You do all of those things early, and it leads to far better outcomes,” says Patterson.
He goes on to explain that for the offshore crews in particular there are challenges due to the high cost of installation. Patterson also says that their crews in ‘the Americas’ have been exploring 3D printing for prototyping. Upon working in the Stones project in the Gulf of Mexico—about 200 miles southwest of New Orleans—engineers were faced with how to put together enormous blocks of syntactic foam into a buoy that would need to disconnect to an FPSO (Floating Production Storage and Offloading) vessel area at what is going to go down in history as the world’s deepest water installation at 2,900m of water.
One part of the project included putting together hundreds of the syntactic foam blocks into a puzzle-like geometry. The question was which sequence would work—and that’s where 3D printing came in with extraordinarily valuable prototyping.
And emphasis is truly placed in planning here, as with 3D printing, the team was able to work with a physical model rather than just a paper example. Everyone has better understanding of the project scope, which is crucial considering the complexity and the absolute requirement to get everything right the first time.
“Usually you have nothing more than paper drawings to try to describe how best to do the installation work,” explains Blake Moore, FPSO Lead for the Stones project. “What we’ve done is we’ve actually used a 3D printer, and we created the model in 3D of the structure, and then a model of all 222 components of the foam blocks so that we could then plan it and make sure the sequence was right to ensure that we did it safely.”
Very importantly, as they worked to complete the project, Shell was able to use the prototype in demonstrating to authorities and inspectors in the US how they would go about using the system. This allowed for approval of the process and the project—the first of its kind in that region.
With this type of extensive prototyping, problems and issues can be considered and overcome ahead of time, rather than in the midst of the project—which would cause delays and added cost. While many have thought that 3D printing in the oil and gas industry would be challenging due to the size of parts often needed, that should soon be a consideration of the past too considering the number of machines being released that allow for nearly anything of any size to be 3D printed. This project in particular offers a great example of why companies like Shell—and others—will want to continue using this technology for superior project management.
“We’re just at the beginning of possibilities for 3D printing, and what it can mean for Shell,” says Patterson.
It sounds as if Shell is really seeing the potential in 3D printing. Do you see it really taking off for this industry in the future? Discuss in the Shell 3D Printing forum over at 3DPB.com.[Source: Energy Voice; Shell]
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