3d printers

How 3D printers could transform the energy industry

The potential of 3D printing in the energy sector is gradually becoming clearer. After years of encouraging oil and gas majors to adopt on-site additive manufacturing technology, printers are finally being recognized for their potential in the field. The global 3D printing market was worth more $13 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 20.8% between 2022 and 2030. So far, one of the biggest uses of the technology has been for medical needs. But as the market grows rapidly, other industries are exploring how the technology could be used to improve operations.

3D polymer material manufacturers manufacture medical devices such as hearing aids, which are in high demand in the United States. After perfecting the technique of creating several medical devices, 3D printing companies believe it can also add significant value to the energy sector by creating components needed at energy sites. This would reduce the time it takes to get vital components when they break, as well as the carbon footprint of shipping those parts. It also has the potential to solve some of the key supply chain issues that energy companies are currently facing.

A company in Scotland saw an opportunity to work in the oil and gas sector through its experience in providing printing services for engineering, aerospace, automotive and other sectors. Orthogonal has opened an office in Aberdeen, Scotland, where it can partner with several oil and gas companies active in the North Sea. Founder John Niven Explain “Having operated in the oil and gas industry for many years, I saw a gap in the market for 3D printing services and decided to start the company.”

It is not the first company to locate near oil and gas operations, hoping to forge strategic partnerships with energy companies. And energy companies are quickly recognizing the benefits. In fact, according to a 2021 reportapproximately 83% of oil and gas companies respondents said they were considering using 3D printing or on-demand manufacturing to support their operations. This is part of a greater push towards modernization and digitalization in the oil and gas sector, with 87% of respondents also showing interest in robotics and automation.

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Oil majors, such as Shell and BP, have already started to adopt 3D printing technologies to quickly deliver parts to site. The ability to print a multitude of different parts means that oil and gas companies do not need to store huge inventories of parts on-site, or depend on third-party companies to deliver components. This would have once been considered impossible, but thanks to innovations in 3D printing, the technology has become more reliable, providing parts that can withstand the harsh conditions of oil and gas operations.

Although 3D printing in oil and gas is still a relatively marginal technology, it is expected to be worth around $32 billion by 2025 and $60 billion by 2030. It is believed that the adoption of this technology could improve the efficiency of operations and reduce costs.

And 3D printing isn’t just useful for oil and gas, with more and more renewable energy companies looking to use the technology. For example, a doctorate. student in the Netherlands recently offered the possibility of build an electrolyzer using a 3D printer. Electrolyzers are used to split water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. If a successful electrolyzer model could be established for 3D printing, it could help save huge amounts of money over traditional manufacturing.

And large-scale projects are already underway in the wind energy sector, with GE planning to print 3D components for wind turbines. GE Renewable Energy has released a statement on its research into the potential for using 3D printing technologies in its projects, explaining this “would allow GE to 3D print the bottoms of wind towers on-site at wind farms.” Which would greatly reduce transportation costs.

GE established a multi-year relationship with cement giant Holcim and 3D printing company Cobod in 2020, launching a research center in Bergen, New York. The 3D printer is the size of a three-story building and can print turbine tower segments up to 20 meters high, according to GE. It is believed to be the largest printer of its type in the world, with the ability to “print over 10 tonnes of real concrete per hour”. It has the potential to encourage other companies to adopt similar technologies to reduce transportation costs and reduce the company’s carbon footprint.

The U.S. Department of Energy has provided a grant to support the research, and the components’ first field applications are expected to be seen within the next five years.

This is just the beginning of the 3D printing revolution as technology continues to improve and energy companies better understand the potential of innovation to supply vital components to their operations. 3D printing will soon become much more common in oil and gas and renewable energy projects, being used to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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