The next revolution: how 3-D printing is transforming the energy sector

It is said that additive manufacturing will shake up every industrial sector it touches. Does that include oil and gas?

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February 05, 2014

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Creating the mold for a fixed-cutter drill bit is no simple matter – it is an artistic process, sculpted by hand and crafted to a fine edge. It starts as a heavy chunk of graphite. The graphite is machined to spec to form the main body of the mold. A team of designers then fixes a precise array of sand cylinders, or “displacements,” onto the inside of the mold using clay, smoothing out the edges manually. After the mold is poured, the sand is chiseled from the drill bit, leaving a spiral pattern of holes. The teeth of the drill bit are fitted into the holes and braised into place. It can take a team of 10 engineers, designers, programmers and machinists well over a week to design a single mold.

Illustration Blair Kelly

But that process, or others like it, is fast becoming obsolete. For the past six or seven years, companies have been toying with a more novel practice, one that consists of simply designing a digital mold, then “printing” it. Indeed, companies in the energy sector are currently field-testing drill bits made from 3-D printed molds – or, molds built from the ground up rather than milled out of graphite. The process is relatively simple. Printers gradually build physical objects by adding successive layers of sand-like plastics, metals or virtually any other material based on a computer-generated blueprint. Building a drill bit mold using a 3-D printer takes no more than a day.


The layering technology, also known as additive manufacturing, has been in the oil and gas sector for some time, primarily used for prototyping and design purposes. Like most technologies that feel new, it is actually fairly old: it dates back to the mid-’80s, when so-called “stereolithography” machines would construct objects from pools of liquid polymer using highly concentrated lasers. The objects rested on platforms that had to be adjusted by hand before the successive layers could be cured in place.

But 30 years later, the capabilities of 3-D printers have caught stride with their perceived potential. Industrial-size printers are now capable of building dense metal products with high precision that are of equal quality to factory-built parts, in many cases stronger or more lightweight. The cheapness and versatility of these products, in small volumes, has brought some experts to predict, with a fair bit of certainty, that 3-D printing will revolutionize for-purpose manufacturing on a scale comparable to the industrial revolution’s effect on mass production, turning economies of scale upside down. It could upend the norms of manufacturing in every sector it touches, including oil and gas.

From left to right, 3-D printed models of a subsea gate valve, equipment housing, slip ring, and capping stack from 3d-Printing Solutions

The Internet is inundated with 3-D printing success stories, some life-changing, many trivial, others merely peculiar. Medical professionals have used additive manufacturing to build prosthetic body parts or bone transplants. A New York Times reporter recently documented his eating an elaborate dinner prepared almost entirely using a basic desktop 3-D printer.

But the technology is fast moving beyond those quirkier ends. Some manufacturers in the energy sector are already using 3-D printers to build final products, not just molds or prototypes. General Electric has printed final parts for small components of its oil and gas technologies (valves and turbo machinery parts, for example) and expects to have those products on the market soon.

The notion of building objects from the ground up rather than using “subtractive” methods that whittle away the unnecessary bits is, in essence, not overly ground-breaking. But the results could well be. Building a drill bit mold using additive manufacturing, for example, only alleviates a portion of the labor required. But within the next five years, or quite possibly less, companies could do away with nearly all the steps currently used to construct the machinery that cracks into the Earth’s crust. Soon enough, drill bits themselves will simply be printed.


A few doors down from Dale Gregg’s office sits a desktop 3-D printer, its nozzle spraying bright-orange ABS plastic with pinpoint precision, the main arm moving side to side as it meticulously builds a digital graphic into a physical object. The prototype is one of seven parts, this one about the size of a fist; the parts fit together to form a basic hand tool currently being used in the energy sector. Gregg, who owns a medical software company in Edmonton, has been working on various side projects all his life. He’s a kind of hobbyist inventor. Most recently he has taken to designing products for the energy services sector.

“The risk of failure is going down, but the cost of failure in that industry is still so high that I do believe they’re somewhat slow adopters in general.”

In the past, he would have carved those prototypes out of wood or milled them from a block of steel. Now he can simply print them off, saving time and money on the prototyping phase. In December 2012, Gregg drew the very first design for the product, which he etched out on a napkin. Within the next year he brought the product through the prototyping phase, began marketing, and commenced full-scale manufacturing; before the New Year he had over 15 distributors in over 200 locations worldwide.

“I wouldn’t even have my first mold made yet if I had to do all the prototyping and all the design work manually,” he says. “I’d still be building prototypes today.” All told, Gregg reckons the printer saved him $500,000 in the design phase, or roughly the same cost of starting the business itself.

Stories like this form the basis for Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, a book from former Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson. In it Anderson argues an enormous number of garage tinkerers, armed with technologies that can in some cases do without large-scale factories, will bring about a modern-day manufacturing revolution, one where underdog hobbyists become producers. These basic desktop 3-D printers, like MakerBot desktop printers for example, will provide “a generation of Makers with a mind-blowing glimpse of the future of desktop manufacturing, just as the first personal computers did 30 years before,” he says.

This movement has already begun to an extent. Yet the technology still has a way to go. Products that need to be replicated in large volumes – like Gregg’s – are still far more economical to build using factory molds. That will in turn limit the effects 3-D printers will have on oil and gas in the near term. When dealing with built-for-purpose parts, however, potential for the technology becomes all the greater.

Barry Calnan, a former Halliburton employee, left the company six years ago to bring 3-D printing to oil and gas. He is now managing Houston-based 3d-Printing Solutions, a company he was hired to run, to incorporate 3-D printing into the operations of oilfield services giants like Baker Hughes Inc., Halliburton, Schlumberger Ltd. and numerous producers. He’s sold 3-D printers to customers who use it for educational purposes, or prototyping machine parts before replacing them; he’s beginning to use 3-D scanners to gauge the wear on downhole tools, down to thousandths of an inch, allowing explorers to prolong the life of equipment.

For one client, Calnan printed a drill sleeve, which, unlike typical steel sleeves, has a built-in flow characteristic. “With the technology of 3-D printing I didn’t have to use those [pre-existing] parameters, so I designed the required flow we wanted, and then built the piece of equipment around that,” he says. “So it’s totally turning [oil and gas manufacturing] on its head from an engineering perspective.”

The technology is also helping educators better explain complex systems. Trainers use 3-D printed models of color-coded field equipment, in turn allowing engineering students to better understand their components. Franek Hasiuk, a geology professor at Iowa State University, is looking to print off three-dimensional models of oil formations so explorers can better visualize the deposits they seek to drill. “We’re always looking for the higher resolution cat scan or seismic data,” he says. “Even 3-D glasses don’t give you the same feel or understanding as having a 3-D model.”

“I wouldn’t even have my first mold made yet if I had to do all the prototyping and all the design work manually. I’d still be building prototypes today.”

Hasiuk formerly worked for ExxonMobil Corp. studying carbonate formations. He later joined the university and, after realizing the potential for the technology, bought his own MakerBot printer in January 2013. Soon he aims to print replicas of core plug samples based on existing 3-D scans, which would provide students with a model for examining rock porosity and fracture characteristics. It could also give companies an archive of samples that haven’t been tainted with mercury. “As humans we are sort of visual, tactile communicators,” he says. “There are some people who just don’t understand 3-D images on a screen the same way they understand touching something in their hand. For communication, for education, for outreach, this is something that is really powerful.”


While the capabilities of 3-D printers have fast improved, their prices keep many would-be “makers” out of the market. Cheap desktop printers that retail for roughly $2,000 to $5,000 don’t have the ability to print in fine detail – like rock pores, say. Where the most impressive work is being done is with the industrial level machines, retailing for anywhere from $60,000 to $900,000.

The patented design for a Halliburton matrix drill bit. Soon enough parts like these could simply be printed rather than machined

In November, General Electric announced it would be investing tens of millions in a number of 3-D printers for its aviation division. The company aims to build 85,000 jet engine fuel nozzles solely using 3-D printers; in the past, those nozzles were made up of about 20 different parts, and were heavier and less heat resistant than the newer models.

The company is using the technology to a lesser extent in energy. Mark Desrochers, the head of advanced manufacturing in General Electric’s measurement and control division of oil and gas, says the company is already using additive manufacturing to build small components of products like valves and turbo machinery. As of yet, it has not sold any products with 3-D printed parts to the market, but he says the company is on the cusp of doing so.

The oil and gas division of GE is itself split into numerous divisions, the majority of which are currently testing additive manufacturing, according to Desrochers. Typically this will only include building a few for-purpose parts and adding them to larger products, though Desrochers believes within the next five years, or potentially less, companies will be printing entire products using additive manufacturing.

He stresses it is early days. “At the end of this, I think a lot of companies including ourselves are trying to utilize this technology in the best way,” he says. “We have focused more on trying to learn the technology internally so that we understand how it behaves and its material properties.” Rolls-Royce, another firm testing the technology, said in an email to Alberta Oil that it is in the “early stage of assessing the potential of this and a number of other technologies for our business.”

Currently, the furthest limits of the technology can be seen in the 3-D Printing Production Quest, a competition hosted by NineSigma, a consultancy, and sponsored by GE. Competitors all submit a 3-D printed object to highly strict specifications and using super dense “refractory” metals like tungsten or molybdenum. Winners for the competition will be announced in March 2014. For much of what needs to be manufactured in the oil and gas sector, however, the densities and precisions required have already been achieved.

The energy industry has been slow to warm to the technology thus far. “The risk of failure is going down, but the cost of failure in that industry is still so high that I do believe they’re somewhat slow adopters in general,” says Desrochers. He says the technology is still hindered by both the still-slow manufacturing speed of 3-D printers themselves and the high difficulty of manufacturing certain parts. “We are very early in the journey.”

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One Response to “The next revolution: how 3-D printing is transforming the energy sector”

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