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How 3D Printers Could Transform The Energy Industry

The potential for 3D printing in the energy industry is gradually becoming clear. After years of encouraging oil and gas majors to adopt the technology for on-site additive manufacturing, printing firms are finally being recognized for their potential in the field.  The global 3D printing market was worth over $13 billion in 2021 and is expected to expand at a CAGR of 20.8 percent between 2022 and 2030. So far, one of the biggest uses of technology has been for medical needs. But as the market rapidly expands, other industries are looking at how the technology might be used to enhance operations. 

3D polymer material manufacturers have been making medical devices such as hearing aids, which have a high demand in the U.S. Having perfected the technique of creating several medical devices, 3D printing companies believe that can also add significant value to the energy sector by creating components needed on energy sites. This would decrease the amount of time needed to obtain vital components when they break, as well as reduce the carbon footprint of having to ship these pieces. It also has the potential so solve some of the key supply chain problems energy companies are currently dealing with.

In Scotland, one company saw the opportunity to work in the oil and gas sector thanks to its experiences providing printing services for engineering, aerospace, automotive, and other sectors. Orthogonal has set up an office in Aberdeen, Scotland, where it can partner with several oil and gas companies working in the North Sea. Founder John Niven explains "having operated in the oil and gas sector for many years, I saw a gap in the market for 3D printing services and decided to set-up the business."

This is not the first company to set up shop near oil and gas operations, with the hope of creating strategic partnerships with energy firms. And energy firms are rapidly recognizing the benefit. In fact, according to a 2021 report, around 83 percent of oil and gas companies surveyed said they were considering using 3D printing or on-demand manufacturing to support their operations. This comes are part of a greater push towards modernization and digitalization in oil and gas, with 87 percent of respondents also demonstrating their interest in robotics and automation.

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 Oil majors, such as Shell and BP, have already begun to adopt 3D printing technologies to deliver parts on-site, quickly. The ability to print a multitude of different parts means that oil and gas firms don't need to store huge inventories of parts on-site, nor do they have to rely on third-party companies to deliver components. This would once have been thought impossible, but thanks to innovations in 3D printing the technology have become more reliable, delivering parts that can withstand the tough conditions of oil and gas operations. 

While 3D printing in oil and gas remains a relatively fringe technology, it is expected to be worth around $32 billion by 2025 and $60 billion by 2030. It is thought that adopting this technology could improve efficiency across operations as well as reduce costs.

And 3D printing isn't only useful for oil and gas, with more renewable energy firms looking at how to use the technology. For example, a Ph.D. student in the Netherlands recently proposed the possibility of building 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 on traditional manufacturing.  

And large-scale projects are already underway in the wind energy industry, with GE planning to print 3D components for wind turbines. GE Renewable Energy released a statement about its research into the potential for the use of 3D printing technologies in its projects, explaining it would "enable GE to 3D print the bottom portion of the wind turbine towers on-site at wind farms." Which would dramatically reduce transportation costs. 

GE established a multi-year relationship with cement major Holcim and 3D printing company Cobod in 2020, launching a research facility 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 tall, according to GE. It is thought to be the largest printer of its kind in the world, with the ability to "print in excess of 10 tonnes of real concrete per hour." It has the potential to encourage other companies to adopt similar technologies to decrease transportation costs and reduce the company's carbon footprint. 

The U.S. Department of Energy provided a grant to support research and the first applications of the components in the field are expected to be seen within the next half a decade. 

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

By Felicity Bradstock for

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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK. More