The third 3D industrial revolution

3D or additive printing has caught the world’s imagination—with the potential for human bone replacements and even bio-ink being mooted. Elaine Maslin found out more.

Maersk Oil’s digital core laboratory in Qatar. Photo from Maersk Oil. 

In a relatively short space of time, 3D printing has shot from being a quirky concept to a manufacturing method available on the high street.

According to market insight firm Canalys, the size of the market, including 3D printer sales, materials and associated services, reached US$2.5 billion globally in 2013. Canalys predicts that this will rise to $3.8 billion in 2014, with the market continuing to experience rapid growth, reaching $16.2 billion by 2018.

Until recently, the scope of such technologies for use in the upstream offshore oil industry has generally been viewed as a tool for prototyping and modeling, or simply as a fun piece of technology to have on your booth at industry events. But, the potential to print using minerals, or metals, aided by advances in scanning and computational technology, is opening up more options.

Maersk Tankers, a division of A.P. Moller Maersk, has discussed having onboard printers that are able to print off spare parts. GE is already using 3D printing to manufacture jet engine fuel nozzles, which are normally made from a number of smaller parts welded together, using cobalt chromium alloy “dust,” created by turning molten alloys into powder through gas atomization, mechanical milling, spray forming, and other methods, and a direct metal laser melting machine.

According to Monica Schnitger, from market intelligence firm Schnitger Corp., there is not much additive manufacturing in the offshore sector yet.

“Most 3D printing today is still making plastic parts, which don’t meet temperature or pressure specs for offshore applications,” But, she adds: “Flame retardant high performance thermoplastics, more cost-effective metals and matching printer technologies are being introduced by all of the major players, so we should see more activity soon.”


Additive printing underway. Photo from Professor Franek Hasiuk.

The technology has in fact been around since before the 1980s. It has taken a combination of advances in computing and software and the release of a number of patents to help the technology reach its commercial potential. Much of the evolution of the technology has come from biomedical research (printing bones or other molecular, biological structures), as well as circuits and electrode fabrication, according to a UK Government’s Intellectual Property Office.

It was the biological applications for 3D printing that first caught the attention of Professor Franek Hasiuk, a geology professor at Iowa State University. Professor Hasiuk previously worked at a super major as a geochemist. He had been looking into core networks—the physical arrangement of reservoir rock structures that can hold oil and gas in place. When he moved into academia he continued his research using computerized axial tomography (CT), which led to reading papers about CT in medical research, and the potential to make bone implants using 3D printing. This in turn made Hasiuk think about the possibility to do the same for core samples, which could then be used to perform experiments and test modelling.

“It is difficult to get core samples because they are hard obtain. But in addition, each sample is different, heterogeneous—even 1cm apart is different in a sample—so you cannot get a perfect sample. With 3D printing we can create a sample for reservoir research,” he says. Samples are based on CT scans of rock samples, which are then put through algorithms to create a sample, which can be printed out. He is creating samples as 5-10 times magnification, but he wants to get to 1-1.

The work requires multiple gigabytes of data, and high computing power, to obtain the information needed, from which the 3D printing files can be computed. Samples produced, in plastics, so far include sandstones from Ohio, at 20% porosity and 2 Darcy, a higher porosity but moderate permeability limestone, and an Austin chalk sample, with high porosity but extremely low permeability.

A selection of Maersk Oil 3D printed core samples. Photo from Maersk Oil. 

Aiding reservoir sweep

A large-scale 3D rock model created using CT scanning and modeling software. Image from Professor Franek Hasiuk. 

Maersk Oil’s Qatar-based Digital Core Laboratory, which opened in January this year in Doha, is among a number of operators also using the technique to produce digitized core samples to aid reservoir visualization and understanding.

Theis Solling, the laboratory manager, says being able to print scale samples helps better visualize and understand the pore architecture—how heterogeneous it is or isn’t for example—in order to understand where the oil is and how it moves. “Having rock model digitization is a great advantage and 3D printing is one extension of that, so you can really show the properties of the pore architecture,” he says.

While you can use numerical data to describe the attributes of a particular core sample, having a printed model aids the visual understanding, Solling says. “This can be highly valuable,” he adds, “for offshore supervisors in particular, to help decide water sweep programs. It can help to explain why you need polymer injection or why we might want to block larger pores after a first water sweep to make sure you get a better sweep through the reservoir.”

The laboratory is part of a 10-year, US$100 million investment by Maersk Oil in applied research in Qatar, focusing on improved oil recovery, enhanced oil recovery and the marine environment. 3D printing has also been used in connection with Maersk Oil Qatar’s corporate social responsibility program, by using the technology to help archaeology research at in the UNESCO world heritage site in northwest Qatar.

Samples for testing

Hasiuk wants to take 3D core sample printing a step further, by building virtual samples from the ground up, based on CT scans, but modelled to create homogenous samples and then printed and used to calibrate reservoir models through physical testing. You would be able to specify porosity, permeability and surface area, then print it for testing in a laboratory before calibrating a numeric method, Hasiuk says. It is work in progress.

A further development could see purely computer-based models, or “digital rocks,” which recreate and model samples in order to better understand fields. But Hasiuk says by printing models you are better able to prove the quality of the process.

As patents on 3D printing lapse, particularly Selective Laser Sintering and methods which enable the use of minerals in 3D printing, further doors will open, he says, both enabling printing with different materials, but also enabling control of surface texture. This could allow much more accurate surface physics.

Printing on site

Chris Anderson, director, innovation and applied technology at Wipro Technologies, based in California, says: “The obvious potential for 3D printing or additive manufacturing in the oil and gas industry is printing onsite, which would open up the potential to lower costs and increase staff safety.”

Left: A 3D-printed core sample.   Right: A 2D core sample visualization. 

Photos from Professor Franek Hasiuk.

This could be beneficial, as increasing numbers of fields are in more and more remote, deep, and politically and geographically hard to access places, with storage and logistical hurdles. “There would also be benefits in not having to transport parts, and being able to tailor the parts on site to the particular application,” he says.

But, he adds: “Right now, there are a lot of hurdles. Some of them are just mechanical issues, around the printing. There is a very limited capability to print with multiple materials in the same printing run. Most are able to print a single material and print different parts and then assemble them later. Also, the time and expense printing a single object can take hours or days. There is also a lot more finishing and post-printing work that needs to be done.

“There are also legal issues, some to do with IP, some with warranty. As far as I know, people are still trying to address how you might keep a warranty valid if you use 3D printed parts printed yourself. Even a simple part swap might negate a warranty. I think all these things will be resolved, but I don’t think they this will happen until they are tried.”

A potential scenario could be original equipment manufacturers signing off specific CAD designs that allow users to print to a specification, which can then be signed off or verified to be meeting the specification through a measurement and materials point of view.

Some of the issues could be resolved around using an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which contains information including when and how something was discovered to who the vender is, who the pattern makers are, suggests Anderson. “When you are looking at adopting 3D printing as a significant part of the procurement puzzle, you will have to think about treating the design as a piece of the inventory, looking at how they are stored, who the author is, what permissions there are, how to test it, how to make sure they are aligned to original equipment manual and warranties. Essentially, if you have people printing parts on site, it will either be done in an organized manner, or as needed, which can lead down a route to where no one has any idea about what is operating on your asset.”

Another big piece of work will be assessing what can and cannot be 3D printed and when it might make economic sense to do so, something Wipro is looking to help firms manage. The total cost of a part, including transportation and storage costs, spillage rates, down-time, and HSE risk, etc., now need to be taken into account, Anderson says. “There are a lot of variables to look at – how much it costs to buy a part, get it on site, keep it on site, and deploy it. Understanding all that, as well as understanding where we are technologically with 3D printing, allows us to see what is possible in terms of what is proven (in terms of printing, IP, and warranties) and from that we can create a list of what is possible and where 3D printing could be more cost effective than purchasing and transporting a part on site.”

“I think that as the technology improves, it is possibly going to make more and more sense to print things locally, especially when you look at costs and risks associated with transportation to some of the sites where our industry is working. But it will take a while.”

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