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Rapid prototyping is revolutionizing the mainstream manufacturing and consumer markets; opening an altogether different avenue in developing products.

While it may have gone unnoticed, there are many manufacturers already utilizing this technology to build prototypes as well as end-use parts.

For industries like automotive, aerospace, and medical, rapid prototyping technology is already doing wonders by providing the ability to develop complex product designs with the least turnaround time.

However, it is quite unexpected to imagine that the oil and gas industry, which deals with massive equipment keeping crude flowing, would adopt this newly growing manufacturing technique.

Despite being small, the revolution has begun; starting from small plastic parts to 3D printed metal nozzles, which are paving the way for utilizing the additive manufacturing technique to develop oil field equipment on a much larger scale.

For example, GE Oil and Gas has started experimenting with plastic and metal 3D printers and has reduced the design for prototyping time from 12 weeks to just 12 hours.

The company is also reported to produce electric submersible pumps in the future using this technology. Halliburton, an oilfield service company is also using 3D printing across different business lines, which include completion tools, wire lines and perforation tools, testing and subsea, and in drill bits and service lines.

While it takes couple of days to print a part, it is still far better and faster than conventional CNC machining. Parts with complex geometries can be easily created and with a reduced number of components as compared to traditional machining, where complex parts are required to be broken down into number of components in order to machine them from inside.

One of the promising features of rapid prototyping, or 3D printing, is its ability to build parts on-site as needed. This is best suited for offshore oil and gas applications where if a part breaks, the same can be printed instead of bringing parts from onshore.

This significantly reduces lead time and allows oil and gas companies to better manage their supply chain operations. Another opportunity for companies is to look at the parts of their equipment that were being developed by companies now out of businesses, and utilize 3D printing to extend the life of their expensive asset.

Challenges of 3D Printing in Oil & Gas Industry

Unlike other industries where additive manufacturing is being adopted increasingly, the oil and gas sector is a bit slow and steady due to higher concerns about the liability and reliability of the parts.

However, Accenture does see potential in 3D printing in oil and gas, despite being not in the agenda of saving money due to the downturn in oil prices.

There’s a need for special 3D printing equipment that can operate in a high pressure and temperature environment where energy companies often operate.

Also, materials for 3D printing also need to be certified to make them usable by the oil an gas industry, in a similar fashion that the aerospace and automotive sectors have done.

How Should Oil & Gas Industry Approach Rapid Prototyping/3D Printing

Accenture advised in its 2014 report that companies should being by building models in order to become familiar with the current state of the technologies and create strategies to identify target areas of the organization where 3D printing can provide most value.

This can be done by closely collaborating with field workers to identify which parts can be printed, replaced and maintained.

Operators should also focus on working with suppliers outside the organization to understand how they are planning to utilize 3D printing in their supply chains in the future. Successful transformation to digitization can be achieved by ensuring a smooth transition without compromising existing structures.

New Approach in Engineering Drawings

A major shift with 3D printing comes in developing engineering drawings which are required to be translated into modern designs as compared to the ones developed by envisioning standard manufacturing technology. This implies re-imagining all the standards and limitations while developing CAD models to ensure that things work well and safely once printed.

Unlike machined part, design engineers need to focus on ensuring that the geometry remains watertight, i.e. without any open spaces to avoid errors in printing. Holes and slots are required to be resized to ensure that their dimension remains proper when exposed to high temperature conditions.

Focus should be more on minimizing the use of support materials to avoid material wastage and hence keep the innovation cycle cost-effective and suitable to the requirements of the oil and gas industry, which is struggling to gain profits in an environment of fluctuating oil prices.

For the oil and gas sector, 3D printing indeed holds a promising future, but it needs people within the industry to break the barriers that are preventing innovation.

Although a machined part looks shiny and smooth as compared to a 3D printed part, both will have the same functioning capability. It is then a matter of preference and not functional issue; but with printing, you have the ability to create anything.