Apr 19, 2016 | By Alec

Though product designers recognized the prototyping power of 3D printing years ago, it looks like those convictions are now also reaching the oil and gas industry. The Dutch oil and gas multinational Shell has just revealed that they have been relying on 3D printers to successfully prototype the deepest drilling station in the world: the Stones oil and gas station in the US portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

This is certainly one of the most challenging projects Shell has undertaken in recent years, and is currently under construction. The Stones deep-water oil and gas project will be the deepest reaching station in the world, with pipelines stretching down to 2,900 meters below the surface of water. The hugely complex system will feature a gigantic 19 meter tall buoy filled with hundreds of solid foam blocks. Moored at the surface, that buoy will act as the Floating Production, Storage and Offloading (or FPSO) station for oil and gas received from the seabed. “The buoy slots into a turret inside the FPSO, like a plug and socket, enabling production while holding the vessel safely in place,” its developers say.

But it is also perhaps the most efficiently developed drilling station. As Shell revealed, their engineers prototyped the whole system in miniature through 3D printing. “The stones team used a 3D printer connected to their computer design system to produce scaled-down plastic versions of all components in only four weeks. Conventional methods would have taken several months. Piece by piece, they built a working prototype of the buoy, simulating the metal outer structure with the foam blocks inside,” they say.

Normally, they would rely on extensive drawings, but that was a time-consuming and costly process. Instead, 3D printing showed them exactly how to improve components before building the real-life buoy in the construction yard, and even helped them work out the most efficient assembly sequence for the buoy. And their experience with the plastic prototypes was completely positive, says Shell Innovations Adviser Shawn Darrah.“Digital design and 3D printing offer scope to build more efficient prototypes, which we transform into products in their full physical form,” he argued.

In this particular case, the functional 3D printed prototype even enabled Shell to show US authorities – who had to approve the ambitious Stones project – exactly how it functioned in a rough sea environment. According to Shell, the model made it far easier for the government officials to study and approve the FPSO stability system in rough weather, and even let them determine exactly how safe the disconnecting mechanism was.

While Shell doesn’t feel quite ready for 3D printed metal end-products yet, this Stones experiment has enabled the oil and gas multinational to fully experience the potential of 3D printing. According to Shell’s Executive Vice President Engineering Robert Patterson, 3D printing can make the entirety of the oil and gas industry more efficient and can greatly speed up the development of production centers. “We are just at the beginning of new possibilities of 3D printing and what it can mean for Shell,” he concluded.



Posted in 3D Printer Company



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