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3D printing – from science fiction to industrial reality

Luisa Elena Mondora and Matteo Vanazzi from the Italian 3D print start-up company f3nice, one of several innovative companies that Equinor has partnered with in recent years.
Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland

In Equinor, we are using 3D printing to produce spare parts on demand, reducing lead times, physical warehousing and improving functionality. Together with our suppliers we are cutting time, costs, consumption and CO2 emissions.

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What is 3D printing?

3D printing, or Additive Manufacturing (AM), is a production method where the material is built up in layers, one layer at a time, based on a 3D model to create a solid object.

Products can be printed in both metal and plastic. In recent years, 3D printing has gone from being a sci-fi technology for the future to becoming an industrially available technology.

It is a technology that offers fantastic possibilities and flexibility in production. It can save costs, reduce CO2 emissions, drastically reduce lead time, ensure the supply of otherwise obsolete spare parts, replace physical inventories with digital ones, and provide improved design opportunities. It is a fast-developing technology that is changing the way we work.

Illustration with the benefits of 3D printing, which are reduce lead time, repair of parts, on-site repair, improved functionality, visualisation, reduced costs, alternative material, temporary fix, digital inventory

A typical scenario

A typical scenario would be that if a spare part is needed at an offshore installation, our colleagues could find the part in a fully digital inventory, one of our suppliers can print it, and it can be packed and shipped by drone often in a matter of hours.

For example, if a spare part is needed at the Troll Field in the North Sea, it can be ordered through the digital inventory, manufactured at an on-demand factory close to the supply base in western Norway and transported the last stretch with a drone. If the same part is needed at the Peregrino field in Brazil, it can be purchased in the same way and produced locally, in Brazil with 3D printing.

Benefits of 3D printing

With Equinor’s digital inventory, we can purchase and order a specific part from all over the world. By purchasing a part via the cloud there will be no need for transportation over far distances. The physical part can be produced when the need arises, where you need it.

Case example 1: From 4.4 tons of CO2 emissions to only 3.8 kg

Occasionally things break and need fixing at the installations. One example was the broken cooling fan for an electrical motor at Tjeldbergodden, an industrial facility located in the north-western part of the municipality of Møre and Romsdal.

The normal procedure would be to replace the whole motor since the fan was an obsolete spare part. In Norway, this can typically cost about 4.4 tons of CO2 emissions, if you calculate the consumption of raw materials and add the transportation to deliver the fan to the correct location. However, by ordering a fan from the digital inventory and printing it using a local supplier, we will not only reduce cost but reduce CO2 emissions to 3.8 kg of CO2 emissions.

Case example 2: Using recycled materials

The Johan Castberg ship is currently lying at Stord in western Norway in preparation for operation. To avoid delays in this critical phase of the project a mobile 3D printing micro factory has been hired from the Norwegian company Fieldmade and is lying at the docks, a few meters from the hull of the ship. The metal powder used in the 3D printer is 100% recycled scrap metal.

The recycled material is supplied by F3nice, an Italian start-up company that was supported by the Equinor Techstars Energy program, and works within the circular economy for additive manufacturing. They perform a sustainable and innovative process to transform metal scrap into metal powder for 3D printing.

3D print Microfactory

A mobile, temporary 3D print Microfactory from Fieldmade has been installed at the construction yard at Stord in Norway. This to support the Johan Castberg project during the commissioning phase and to build competence within Equinor, Aker Solutions and suppliers in northern Norway. The microfactory is equipped with a 3D scanner, a composite 3D printer and a metal 3D printer.

The largest 3D printed component in the energy industry

A flange used when installing a thruster at the Norne ship. Approximately three meters in diameter and weighing three tonnes. It was 3D printed in Larvik, Norway. The reason for using 3D printing was to reduce lead time from 40 weeks to 10 weeks.
Materials used: steel and inconel.

Case example 1: From 40 to 10 weeks delivery time

At Oseberg Field Centre there was a great need to replace five hydraulic valve blocks. To solve this challenge, we used a 3D printer. 3D printing a polymer replica was a good way to ensure that the 3D model was precise and correct. The results? Much shorter delivery time. The needed time spent following traditional methods would be approximately 40 weeks. However, using the 3D printer, the need time was reduced to 10 weeks.

Case example 2: A more flexible supply chain

With a fully digital inventory, local and modern manufacturing facilities, and the use of drones for transportation of the 3D printed spare parts, our whole supply chain becomes more flexible, significantly reducing emissions and costs due to fewer resources spent.

These small plastic screws save Equinor 10M USD

The combination of 3D scanning, 3D modelling and 3D printing makes it possible to reconstruct any metal or plastic part. For old equipment access to spare parts is a challenge, AM removes this challenge.

On-site repair

Several test cases have been executed at Equinor’s facilities to use a welding robot, programmed as a 3D printer to reconstruct pipes, flanges, manholes etc. after corrosion. More than 30km of welds have been executed without any errors. This will improve safety, reduce cost, reduce scope in turnarounds and improve sustainability.

Case example 1: World record in the industry

At the Norne field, we produced the largest steel and metal object in our industry by 3D -printing. Ship needed to be replaced as part of the maintenance program. To ensure correct functionality the flange had to be changed at the same time. The lead time of a traditional flange was 40 weeks, the 3D printed, 3m in diameter flange took 10 weeks to produce – in Norway. This was made possible due to the collaboration between Equinor, Welmax, DNV and Kongsberg Maritime.

Case example 2: Increased demand for new service functions

With new technology and improved processes, there will be a need for jobs within new and different types of service functions.

3D printing has opened opportunities for welding robots. With this comes an increased demand for service functions such as robot programming, obtaining robots, welding technology, and then executing this work out in the field.

Case example 3: New hubs equals new jobs

Let’s take our work in Norway to exemplify further. To bring this to life locally, we need hubs that can produce the necessary parts locally when ordered. Hubs will be needed in Hammerfest, on the Helgeland coast, in Bergen and in other locations close to our supply bases. With this, there will be new jobs and new value creation that we do not have today.

Digital inventory illustration
Digital Inventory, also called Digital supply Network. This is a way of connecting all suppliers and end users in the Energy industry, and to combine the digital recipe with on-demand manufacturing of spare parts. This will transform the supply chain. Equinor has teamed up with TotalEnergies, Shell, ConocoPhillips, Vår Energi and Fieldnode to develop and implement this globally.

Would you like to learn more about 3D printing?

See a recording of an EquinorTALK session here:

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