General Electric's gas and oil division is ready to embrace 3D printing

Oil industry embraces 3D printing

General Electric’s (GE) oil and gas division is making the first step to join the 3D-printing revolution and will commence production of 3D-printed metal fuel nozzles for its turbines in the first half of 2014.

The company will first carry out a pilot project, testing the additive manufacturing technology, with full production expected to start in 2015.

Previously, GE Aviation had embraced the technology, hailed as bringing about the third industrial revolution, and said it would soon commence production of fuel nozzles for its LEAP engine.

GE’s decision is seen as yet another step forward for 3D printing to become a mainstream industrial technology. Previously, Halliburton has used 3D-printed parts in its drilling equipment, but on a much smaller scale.

Experts believe additive manufacturing could help produce sturdier, more resilient parts needed as oil extraction moves towards more extreme environments, such as deep-water and the Arctic.

The technique allows complex shapes to be created layer by layer without the need for screws or bolts, thus allowing more challenging and precise designs than ever before.

GE Oil and Gas, one of GE's fastest growing divisions, is investing $100m (£60m) over the next two years into technology development with a ‘significant portion’ going towards 3D printing. The division has installed dozens of plastic and metal 3D printers across its businesses.

The other piece of kit that GE Oil and Gas is looking to produce using 3D printers is electric submersible pumps used to artificially bring oil to the surface

"Most of these are about four or five inches in diameter and then about an inch or two in height. It's the right size to put into some of the additive manufacturing," said Eric Gebhardt, chief technology officer at GE Oil & Gas.

At GE's pipeline inspection plant in Newcastle, where monitoring robots known as pigs are assembled, the design loop, which once took 12 weeks, is now done in 12 hours thanks to an on-site 3D printer the size of a hotel minibar fridge.

Pigs are custom-designed to deal with the particular pipeline, whether it be hundreds of metres under the sea or full of corrosive sour gas.

Trial parts can now be printed on location, in plastic, to see whether they fit and work properly. Only then is the part ordered, paid for and delivered in the final material.

For senior engineer Dave Bell the printer is one of the biggest shifts he has seen in his 30 years at the site.

"It's a game changer," he said. "Engineering is all about compromise and this allows you to trial concepts quickly and cheaply."

But challenges remain, predominantly around the size that can be printed and the surface finish produced.

"Now we're going to have to see how large they can get over time," Gebhardt said. "Will it follow Moore's Law where it is going to double in size every 18 months? That's kind of what we're seeing right now. But when is it going to reach a natural inflection point? That's something we have to work through."

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