The Future of 3D Printing in Oil and Gas

We’ve seen so many new things that didn’t exist 50 years ago that exist today like wearable technology. Do you remember when geeks were raving over calculator watches? The calculator watch didn’t exist until about the mid 1970s and weren’t mass-produced until the early 1980s. It became a fashion accessory that Sting even wore on the cover of The Police’s single, Wrapped Around Your Finger. Besides watches, mobile technology has been booming with an adoption rate that is growing 8 times faster than web did in the 1990s and early 2000s. A technology that is actually fairly old, but that is now getting more momentum is 3D printing. It’s been around since the 1980s, but 3D printers didn’t become widely available commercially until the early 2010s. 3D printing has come a long way and is poised to make an impact on a variety of industries including the oil and gas industry.

How Does 3D Printing Work?

In the oil and gas industry, 3D printing or additive manufacturing has actually existed for a while because it was used for prototyping and designs. How does this technology work exactly? First, you need to come up with an idea and lay it out using computer aided design (CAD) or other animation modeling software. Once you’ve created a blueprint, the program divides the object into digital cross-sections so that the printer can build it one layer at a time. Now, you need to copy the file to the computer that controls the 3D printer. Afterwards, you need to set up the machine and choose specific materials to create the object such as rubber, plastic, paper, and other materials. Once you’ve chosen what you want to use, the printer will transfer the material onto a platform and start to pass over it to deposit layers on top of each other until it has created the final product. The different layers are automatically fused together to create one 3D object. The process can take hours or days to complete depending on the object’s size and materials. Once it’s done, you can remove the printed object from the machine and then brush off any remaining powder. Be careful handling the object because it may still be a little weak and it’ll take time for some materials to cure. Once that is done, you’re ready to use your printed object!

Check out this video to see 3D printing in action:

3D Printing in the Oil & Gas Industry

Various organizations like GE have already started using 3D printers to build final products instead of just molds or prototypes. GE has printed valves and turbo machinery parts and expects to put these products on the market soon. According to Reuters, the oil and gas division of GE will start pilot production of 3D printed metal fuel nozzles for its gas turbines in the second half of this year. From the Alberta Oil magazine, Barry Calnan, formerly of Halliburton, left to bring 3D printing to oil and gas and created a company that incorporates this technology into the operations of oilfield services such as Baker Hughes, Halliburton, and Schlumberger. With 3D printing technology, engineers can create designs that were impossible to mass-manufacture before.

Pairing 3D Printing and Mobile

To pair 3D printing with mobile, I can see people using mobile apps to control their 3D printers. You could also design something on your phone and then send it over to a CAD program to create a 3D object. Companies like Sculpteo and Infinate Dreams have already teamed up to create a mobile app called Let’s Create! that lets you design and paint pottery on your smartphone or tablet and then send it directly to a 3D printer to be created. The 3D object is then mailed to anyone you want around the world. In another case, the computer vision and geometry lab of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has developed an app that can turn your smartphone into a mobile 3D scanner. With the app, you move the phone around an object and after a few motions, a 3D model appears on your mobile screen. The 3D model can be used for augmented reality apps or for 3D printing. With apps like these and additional apps that have yet to be created, you could create designs easily on the go. For oil and gas engineers, many travel to various areas of the world to visit oil rigs. Imagine a scenario like this: You find out that a piece of metal or part of an oil rig needs to be replaced. Since it will take some time to get to the site, you use a 3D printer instead to re-create the part you need. With the app mentioned earlier, being able to take a 3D photo of something on the oilfield can be a major advantage and can help speed up the process of conception to reality. Oil and gas mobile applications paired with 3D printing have great potential to improve processes in the industry.

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