3D printing making a mark in oil & gas

The impact of 3D printing will require oil and gas CIOs to provide the flexibility needed to foster innovation and collaboration

Morgan Eldred
Morgan Eldred

The concept of 3D printing maximises the potential of industries that operate on a massive scale by reducing prototyping lead times and cost. It therefore comes as little surprise to learn that use cases for 3D printing by the oil and gas (O&G) industries are proliferating. Gartner predicts that by 2019, 10% of all O&G, as well as oilfield service, companies will be using 3D printers for the production of parts and equipment used within operations.

While 3D printing technology is not yet ready to replace large-scale industrial fabrication of equipment for O&G firms, it does offer value-add potential in the near and long terms. For the near term, 3D printing offers value by significantly reducing the time required for prototyping, producing, reworking and redesigning components.

Longer term, 3D printing is positioned to play a key role within the upstream O&G supply chain by transforming how components of a wide range of equipment are produced. The use of 3D printing will create significant value, particularly in locations where the supply of ordinary parts is limited, or where shipping and customs clearance for parts are likely to cause time delays.

O&G industry use cases for 3D printing are developing rapidly in several areas. These include conceptualisation, prototyping, manufacturing, augmented manufacturing, on-demand manufacturing and alternative design. There is great promise for the use of 3D printing in manufacturing short-run parts or for the actual production of parts used in drilling. Upstream O&G companies are becoming increasingly aware of 3D printing’s value, and are beginning to expand its use in their R&D activities, as are oil and gas operators, oil field service companies and OEMs - all of which have begun to increase their investments in 3D printing.

As upstream O&G companies find 3D-print-based solutions to industry-specific problems, CIOs and other IT leaders must play central roles in determining how innovative ideas can be transformed into business opportunities. While engineering and operations counterparts will make the 3D print technology decisions, IT leaders and their staff will be responsible for supporting those decisions with a robust and secure IT infrastructure.

At the same time, concerns over intellectual property confidentiality and security, especially within the engineering domains, remain a drag on 3D printing’s progress. O&G companies, like other users of 3D designs, need to manage the intellectual property issues associated with 3D printing with great care. They are entering uncharted territory when it comes to intellectual property and design risks. Licensing and manufacturing stipulations for legally and safely reproducing parts using 3D printing are in their embryonic stages. Senior managers are only now beginning to address these issues.

Take for example the opportunity to use 3D printing to manufacture replacement parts on-site, which is particularly attractive in remote O&G drilling locations. This could lead companies to fall foul of patent and other legal issues surrounding the duplication of parts without permission or without proffering payment. Additionally, O&G firms need to ensure that every 3D-printed part meets the manufacturer’s quality and performance specifications, particularly for critical components being produced or repaired at remote drilling locations. With increasing adoption of 3D printing, intellectual property issues will undoubtedly loom large in the future. O&G, as well as oilfield service, companies must enable intellectual property protection, especially within the engineering domains. CIOs and other IT leaders will need to address issues such as preventing intellectual property theft and counterfeiting, ensuring the durability and high performance of 3D-printed parts and enabling collaboration and involvement of enterprise architects with engineering and operations personnel to implement security best practices.

Ultimately the impact of 3D printing on IT architecture will be substantial, requiring O&G CIOs to provide the flexibility needed to foster innovation and collaboration while enabling access control and security. The use of 3D printing will not only improve existing business processes and products, it will also lead to innovation and, possibly, the creation of new products, new business models and new ways of competing. Beyond concerns over protecting their own and others’ patents, companies must also consider how to securely manage 3D designs and print files, especially in the engineering domain.

The geographically dispersed nature of the upstream O&G industry can also create challenges in terms of where and how to store data - which can include 3D printing data - as well as with industry and governmental standards for the transporting or sharing of data. Using 3D print service bureaus with regional or multinational facilities can help alleviate some of these issues and facilitate timely delivery of a broad range of 3D printing technologies while not requiring investments in multiple and geographically dispersed in-house devices.

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Oil & Gas Middle East - September 2020

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