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Can 3D Printing Drive Oil & Gas Climate Gains?

lux research 3d printing oil and gasOil majors including Halliburton, Schlumberger, and Shell are turning to 3D printing to improve efficiencies and profits in this era of low oil prices, according to a Lux Research.

But what does this new technology mean for the old-school industry’s environmental footprint? That’s more of a mixed bag, report author and Lux Research associate Harshit Sharma told Environmental Leader.

Sharma says the oil and gas industry should take note of successful early 3D printing adopters like GE, which has invested more than $110 million to date in the technology. GE has plans to invest another $327 million in its Greenville, South Carolina additive manufacturing facility over the next several years as it increasingly relies on 3D printing for mass production.

The report, Assessing the Opportunity of Additive Manufacturing for the Oil and Gas Industry, finds some cases are lucrative for oil and gas. Profitable use cases include 3D printing chemical injection stick tools and nozzles for downhole cleanout tools. It also says sand control screens and pipeline pigs could be lucrative uses in the future.

Technology remains a hurdle to wide-scale implementation but the report says building partnerships can help overcome this barrier. Oil and gas companies should engage with metal printing companies such as EnergyX and Arevo for developing new printing techniques for use cases like liner hanger spikes. For drill bits, candidate partners include Nanosteel and QuesTek Innovations.

Other barriers include industry size and structure, risk aversion, and lack of infrastructure. However, the success of 3D printing in the automotive and aerospace industries shows these factors are not insurmountable barriers, and the oil and gas industry’s growing focus on operational efficiency is driving change.

When asked about the environmental impact of 3D printing on the industry, Sharma said it “is a largely an open-ended question.”

As other industries using 3D printing have found, the environmental gains come from reduced waste volumes compared to conventional manufacturing.

“At present, as much as 70 percent of material could be wasted when a particular part is mahcined in the oil and gas industry,” Sharma said. “An instance worth mentioning here would be about how we create spikes on Liner Hangers, a part used as an anchor for hanging long strings of oilfield equipment in wells. A huge chunk of the material is turned down to create these spikes. Even though companies implement strategies to recover the scrap metal generated, its often simply dumped along with the manufacturing lubricants and cleaning fluids used in landfills.”

But, he adds, waste management companies are becoming more efficient at recovery with the global scrap metal industry now valued at several billions of dollars.

Sharma said the negative environmental impact of 3D printing “is where things get interesting.” For one thing, 3D printers are more energy intensive than conventional equipment, which means the manufacturer consumes more power — and generates more emissions.

As things stand, most of the power production is done using coal or natural gas, and a spike in power requirements from the manufacturing industry will lead to higher carbon emissions,” Sharma said.

Additionally, 3D printing resins are largely derived from petrochemicals. “In fact, the adoption of 3D printing perhaps encourages more production activities for the oil and gas industry which environmental lobbyist would disagree with,” Sharma said. “An ideal future would be 3D printing parts using biomaterials or bioplastics in a solar/micro grid backed manufacturing plant, but this might just be too far in the future.”

The report says 3D printing can help oil and gas companies cut costs. Sharma said the expected savings varies and cites a case study from 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys.

Oil and gas products and services supplier i-tech 7 incorporated Stratasys’ Polyjet printers over computer numerical control or CNC machines to manufacture its specialty part called the chemical stick injection tool. “3D printing takes them only two days to create the part compared to six to eight days via CNC machining,” he said. “This roughly accounts to about 75 percent reduction in lead time which is critical for oil and gas applications.”

According to another Stratsys case study, BMW saved 58 percent in costs and 92 percent in lead time using Stratsys’ fused deposition modeling technology — this is a technique used for 3D printing — to produce jigs and fixtures in its facilities over CNC machining.

“3D printing holds promise for the oil and gas industry, but the industry needs to change its culture and learn to integrate 3D printing into its complex supply chain in order to fully benefit,” Sharm said.

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