Additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) is one of this decade’s most disruptive technologies. Duco de Haan, Commercial Development Director at Lloyd's Register Energy, believes this would transform the challenges faced by many companies.
“Without doubt, additive manufacturing (AM) technologies present opportunities for tighter supply chains, reduced logistics costs, more complex designs and a greater degree of customisation. If I am able to download an equipment drawing, select a part and then “print” it out, that would be an amazing benefit to a company. The potential is staggering.”
When equipment or parts malfunction, it is often hundreds of miles away from a distribution centre. Keeping spares in stock is expensive and wasteful but replacing the essential part can be slow, expensive and often weather-dependent. Even worse, the part may be obsolete and no longer available – and sometimes a whole component may need to be scrapped as a result. Already, there are a large number of techniques and technologies available (such as Laser Cladding, Selective Laser Melting and Fused Deposition Modelling) and with increasing investment in development, testing and refinement the field is likely to see major advances in the coming years.
In the oil and gas industry for example, most companies have only recently started to seriously examine the technical and commercial viability of AM. This reflects the industry’s unique and challenging operating conditions. Whilst pilot projects abound, wholesale and sustainable integration of AM components into the energy supply chain will not happen quickly – indeed, at this stage, more questions are being asked than answered. Most significantly, what can AM technologies do for the industry? What are the risks? How can we safely and profitably extract value?
Escaping the traditional constraints.
As companies continuously seek ways to gain maximum value from equipment and assets, there is increased emphasis on the rapid repair and replacement of critical components. AM hardware (printers) could enable manufacture within an operational environment, helping to reduce downtime. Furthermore, components can be customised to include upgrades made to the original design or even to produce a component no longer made by the manufacturer.
In an era when easily accessible natural resources are rapidly dwindling, exploration and production activities need to go deeper – and in order to withstand the higher temperatures and higher pressures, equipment for the oil and gas industry needs to be significantly stronger and adapt to more extreme conditions. In traditional (subtractive) manufacturing, this typically means that more material would be needed; but AM provides an alternative option to change internal designs (the most recognisable example being a honeycomb pattern) that can lead to lighter and stronger structures.
New risks and challenges.
Clearly, there are strong commercial, operational and technical incentives to apply AM technologies. However, there are a number of key risks that continue to challenge sustainable adoption.
Whilst it is sometimes perceived that AM is an entirely automated process, this belies the fact that it is a complex network of variables: raw materials (typically metal powders for oil and gas applications); design geometries; software manipulation; hardware operation; production and post-production finishing.
Chris Chung, Head of Strategic Research at Lloyd’s Register Energy’s Technology division in Singapore says: “Each step of the process must be analysed and assessed for inherent variability, which relies upon robust monitoring and control procedures. Without these controls, structural elements are at risk of stress fractures and significantly reduced asset life.”
There is also some concern that companies may look to take on manufacturing activities traditionally left to Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM). How rapidly can companies diversify and up-skill to match the existing levels of quality and assurance of their existing manufactured products? There are significant barriers to overcome for any organisation considering this approach, including the issues associated with replicating the Intellectual Property (IP) of the existing component design.
These issues highlight the importance of industry codes and standards. And as yet, there are no global standardised means of evidencing the safety and integrity of all AM products.
Where do we go from here?
To support companies as they seek to safely integrate AM technologies into their processes, Lloyd’s Register Energy is doing its part by beginning to shape and help guide ‘best practice’ standards to support the consistent production of high quality outputs while giving companies confidence in their evolving supply chains.
Through a major Joint Industry Project (JIP), Lloyd’s Register Energy is collaborating with key stakeholders including material and machine suppliers, manufacturers, end users and research organisations to develop a shared understanding of the risks and issues and how these can be overcome. The project is co-supported by TWI and Rolls-Royce is the latest industry partner to have joined the JIP.
In addition to the JIP, Lloyd Register is involved with the International Organization for Standardization, introducing globalized standards across the AM industry. At this point, a standard has been established to define terminology when discussing AM, and high-level standards regarding processes and design methods are being discussed. Because supply chains are frequently spread across multiple countries, these standards are important to ensure consistency, but take time to develop.
A new way forward.
AM is not the solution for every industry supply chain, but it has great potential and its application should be fully evaluated over the coming years as the technologies mature and achieve greater standardisation and assurance. In fact, there may be long-term risk for organisations that do not keep pace with these emerging technologies as traditional resources become more scarce and costly. Whilst this scenario is some way off, there is a need for industry to take the opportunity to shape the future of AM.
For those organisations that do successfully adopt the technology, the benefits are significant – and Lloyd’s Register Energy is well-placed to help unlock the potential. Its newly launched certification framework (www.lr.org/additive-manufacturing) for AM metallic components provides a step-by-step approach to provide the necessary level of confidence in the performance of certified AM products, and acts as a stabilising force for quality and safety – an approach that will support the long-term sustainability of the energy and marine industries.
Duco de Haan, Commercial Development Director at Lloyd’s Register Energy Division
“We recognise that AM has the potential to deliver real benefits across many industry applications and market sectors in the future, including oil and gas, nuclear and maritime. The consistent approach and standards for component certification will be a significant step forward in proving to our customers the industrial viability of components made using the latest AM techniques.”
Chris Chung, Head of Strategic Research at Lloyd’s Register Energy’s Technology Division