Jeremy Bowden reports on a new JIP which could see the oil and gas industry embrace the potential of 3-D printing
Last month TWI and Lloyd’s Register Energy announced that they would embark on a joint industry project (JIP) to develop 3-D printing techniques for the offshore oil and gas sector. The 18-month project is expected to attract considerable interest from companies worldwide looking to collaborate and to gain early adoption of ‘approved’ additive manufacturing (AM) – or 3-D printing – for their products. The project involves the certification of laser powder additive-manufactured components for industrial adoption in the energy and offshore sectors. The additive manufacturing market is forecast to almost quadruple in the next seven years, according to TWI, while Lloyd’s Register Energy's 2014 Technology Radar survey suggested that AM would have a major impact on the oil and gas industry in particular within the next five years. 3-D printing is a direct digital manufacturing process by which a component is produced layer by layer from 3-D digital data without the use of machining, moulding or casting. Each layer is subsequently recreated by depositing powder layers, one on top of the other and melting their surface by scanning a laser beam over the powder bed. The technique has developed rapidly over the last ten years, and although the benefits apply equally to numerous industries, applications in the energy and offshore sectors are currently still at a relatively nascent stage.
TWI’s project leader, Amanda Allison, told InnovOil that the sort of manufactured products best suited to the technique were small precision-engineered components that can then be fitted together into more complex machines or facilities. It is most suitable for high-value parts, produced in low volumes and manufactured from high-value material. These include products difficult to manufacture by conventional processes – complex organic shapes, re-entrant angles and internal cavities, for example. Likewise, it can be very beneficial if the level of waste, particularly of expensive materials, is high when using conventional machining. The scale of component that can be produced is limited by the size of the machine, so large pieces of equipment are not ideally suited. Larger 3-D printing machines are correspondingly more expensive, and so production of large items carries additional cost. Allison said the technology the JIP is evaluating could support two size levels. The first, selective laser melting (SLM), uses AM software to slice a 3-D CAD model and has a typical build chamber volume of 250mm x 250mm x 300mm. The second technique is laser metal deposition (LMD), which uses a movable powder nozzle and laser beam operated by a robotic or gantry-based motion system. The build envelope is dictated by the size of the gantry or robot; while the typical range of this system is 2,000mm x 2,000mm x 2,000mm, this is by no means a limit. In principle, it means that replacement parts could be generated on site as needed, but current technology requires application assessment on a case-by-case basis, she added. Once established, 3-D printing should help the industry to produce more replacement equipment on site as it is required, rather than having to have it ordered in advance and shipped in. This should reduce logistics costs, and would reduce the need to maintain large inventories of replacement parts, in turn making rigs and other installations more self-sufficient. When twinned with other automated technologies, this could extend the already-growing potential for remote operations and maintenance. Allison said that other longer-term benefits for the oil and gas sector could include reduced manufacturing and maintenance costs generally, shorter lead times on complex components and the opportunity to manufacture components to more novel designs and in an increased range of materials. In addition, companies can expect to extend the life of existing infrastructure with new components and increased durability through the reduction of maintenance cycles and lower repair costs.
While 3-D printing techniques are relatively new to offshore oil and gas, additive manufacturing is widely adopted by the defence and aerospace industry, where its ability to create complex metal parts with a high level of precision, reduced weight and high material utilisation makes it a viable method of constructing components for turbines and engines. In the new application of the techniques to the offshore and marine sectors, TWI and Lloyd’s Register Energy are planning to research and develop real-world additive manufacturing practices and create new industry product certification guidelines. This should pave the way for more widespread adoption of additive manufacturing technology, while at the same time assisting industry in determining how best to tap into its potential. TWI and Lloyd’s Register Energy are members of an ISO working group developing the 3-D manufacturing standards. However, the standards are still several years away from the adoption stage, and there is no provision in existing standards for the certification of parts produced using the new 3-D printing technology. TWI added that the JIP was aiming to deliver evidence-based certification guidelines for laser powder additive manufactured parts within 18 months. Although the industry has its own exacting safety requirements, the use of 3-D printing in both aerospace and defence is reassuring for operators concerned about its practicability and reliability.
The partners believe that collaboration is the primary driver for sustainable growth in new manufacturing technology for the energy and offshore industries. Each sponsor on the project will be invited to contribute a detailed component design to form the subject of a case study. Each component will then be taken from concept through to completion, ultimately providing the sponsor with a conditionally certified part that meets industrial requirements for quality, safety and consistency, and which is qualified ready for market introduction. Sponsors will also benefit from improved insight into laser powder AM processes and practices, and a reduced cost of certification thanks to the combined processing and manufacturing certification expertise of the JIP partners. TWI is a formidable lead for the project, having amassed considerable experience in AM in developing both SLM and SLM and LMD processes for many years. With the addition of Lloyd’s Register Energy’s expertise in product certification and its strong links to international oil and gas producers, the project could be a breakthrough in terms of reaching global codes, standards and regulations.