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Felicity Bradstock

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.

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The Rise of 3D Printing in the Energy Industry

  • In the energy industry, 3D printing technology is enabling on-site production of critical components, reducing repair costs, and minimizing downtime across various sectors.
  • In the wind energy sector, the adoption of 3D printing has streamlined operations, providing a rapid return on investment within six months, and ensuring standardization for improved reliability and safety.
  • In nuclear power, breakthroughs include a 3D-printed reactor core which was completed in just three months, demonstrating the technology's potential for faster, more affordable, and productive energy systems.

Several new technologies are lending themselves to the improvement of the energy industry, from machine learning to artificial intelligence (AI). One such technology is 3D printing, which is allowing companies across several energy sectors to quickly print vital components to improve efficiency and cut delivery costs and times. The technology is expected to drive forward both oil and gas operations, as well as renewable energy activities and nuclear power, as more companies adopt the 3D printing equipment. 

ConocoPhillips has been drilling for oil in Alaska for over half a century. The harsh, cold conditions make operations particularly complicated, with difficulties in accessing supply chains and the need for regular maintenance work on equipment. Until recently, this is something the oil major had to contend with through traditional avenues. But thanks to greater modernization and digitalization, ConocoPhillips can now respond to challenges more quickly and efficiently. Alaska’s North Slope, which lies close to the Arctic Ocean, is one of ConocoPhillips’s three major development programs in Alaska. Despite its difficult conditions, it is highly lucrative for the company. 

As part of its operations, ConocoPhillips uses gas turbines that compress natural gas through combustion, to reinject the gas into the reservoir for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), to generate electricity to power facilities and drilling equipment. The equipment relies on a burner plug, which allows fuel to be mixed with compressed air. However, these wear out over time and many of the original plugs are no longer being produced. Traditionally they have been replaced by local machine shops that use antiquated production methods, which require a manual up-front design phase and a laborious manufacturing and delivery phase of around 30 weeks. This process is the same for many of the components being used in operations, leading to lost time and revenue. This led ConocoPhillips to invest in 3D printing technology that could provide the components needed on-site in a short time frame of around three weeks. In the future, the company hopes to integrate AI and 3D printing technology to design parts digitally. This will mean less physical space will be needed to store parts thanks to the use of a digital inventory.

The story is similar in the renewable energy industry. As companies digitalize operations, they are increasingly investing in 3D printing technology to help them save both time and money. In the wind energy sector, Vestas manufactures wind turbines for 87 countries and the use of in-house 3D printing for custom parts, specialized tools, and prototypes has streamlined operations significantly. Jeremy Haight, the chief engineer of additive manufacturing and advanced concepts at Vestas, stated “We launched a pilot 3D printing program, and we saw genuine ROI within about six months. It performed far better than we even thought it would.” 

Before it adopted 3D printing technology, Vestas sourced critical components from a multitude of vendors around the world, who followed detailed manufacturing instructions. The production process could take between six and 12 weeks, while delivery and checking for compliance could add more time. If parts did not meet the site safety standards, they would have to be redone. This cost Vestas huge amounts of time and money. 

In contrast to hand-produced components from various vendors, 3D printing offers a level of standardization that can boost reliability and safety standards. Each of Vestas’s global facilities uses the same brand and type of industrial carbon-fiber 3D printer, a Markforged X7. Each has access to a digital inventory of component designs and detailed 3D printer settings. The company began its 3D printing program in 2021 and now prints over 10,000 parts a year. 

Meanwhile, Nuclear power, which is steadily growing in popularity again, also relies on 3D printing to support operations. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in the U.S. first produced a 3D-printed prototype of a reactor core using a DED machine in 2020. This formed part of its “Transformational Challenge Reactor Demonstration” (TCR) program, which aims to develop more affordable and productive energy systems in a shorter timeframe than conventional machine construction. From the design phase to printing completion the core was produced in just three months. 

In the Czech Republic, 3D printing has proven invaluable in tackling the supply chain constraints triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and subsequent war. Czech nuclear company Škoda JS printed thousands of plastic and metal parts needed to run nuclear operations. The printing machines can produce metal parts that weigh up to 600kg in a short time frame, helping the company to battle supply chain disruptions. 

Investment in 3D printers is proving invaluable for companies across the energy industry, from oil and gas to renewables and nuclear power. The ability to quickly produce critical components on site, using an extensive digital inventory, is allowing companies to cut the costs and time associated with repairs and ensure critical revenue-earning activities remain in operation.

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com

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