Jan.24, 2014

General Electric's oil and gas division will begin pilot production of 3D printed metal fuel nozzles which feed combustion in gas turbines. The plan is to begin the pilot in the second half of this year with full production expected in 2015.

Instead of using traditional casting and welding techniques, the metal fuel nozzles will be produced using additive manufacturing – the industrial version of 3D printing commonly used in medical implants and plastic prototypes. This will simplify the production of the fuel nozzles by printing in one piece what is currently made by welding together many sub-components.

Although Halliburton has already used 3D printing to produce parts used in drilling, it did so on a smaller scale. The decision of GE Oil and Gas to use 3D printing to this extent is thus a milestone in the industry.

3D printing may be increasingly important to the oil and gas industry as drilling conditions become more extreme – in ultra-deep water and areas in the Arctic. 3D printing technology allows engineers to realize complicated designs to address the challenges presented by such extreme conditions.

The oil and gas division of GE's is fast growing and plans to invest $100 million over the next two years on technology development with a "significant portion" going to 3D printing according to Reuters.

Despite the growing use of 3D printing in mass manufacturing, its primary use in the oil and gas industry is still for rapid prototyping. Reuters reports that at GE's pipeline inspection plant in Newcastle, monitoring robots known as pigs are assembled; the design loop which once took 12 weeks is now done in 12 hours thanks to an on-site 3D printer the size of a hotel minibar fridge. These monitoring robots – or pigs – are custom designed for specific pipelines which may be hundreds of meters under the sea or full of gas or other corrosive substances. Thanks to 3D printing, trial parts for these pigs may now be easily printed and tested – if they work, only then are they ordered in the required material and paid for.

The plans to use 3D printing technology by GE Oil and Gas mirror those announced last year by GE's aviation division, the world's largest supplier of jet engines, to produce metal fuel nozzles for CMF Leap jet engines. Those fuel nozzles are made using a computer-controlled laser which shoots pinpoint beams onto a bed of cobalt-chromium powder to melt the metal alloy in the desired areas, creating layers one by one with 20-micrometer thickness.

Jeff Immelt, GE chairman and CEO, touts the benefits of additive manufacturing technology: "[3D printing] makes unique shapes with high tech material, in a quick period of time, that is worth my time, and a lot of investment." An important example of such an investment by GE is its acquisition of Morris Technologies and its sister company Rapid Quality Manufacturing in November of 2012 – companies which specialize in additive manufacturing in the aerospace, energy, oil & gas, and medical industries.

The integration of additive manufacturing processes into conventional manufacturing is all about going faster, being more efficient, and improving performance. GE has been active in developing additive manufacturing technology for over 20 years and have long stressed the significance of 3D printing in their conception of the future manufacturing. This was expressed clearly in the white paper by GE's vice president of advanced technologies at GE's Global Research. The recent decision by GE Oil and Gas to use 3D printing in their fuel nozzle production fits well in the company's vision of future manufacturing.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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