For the engineers of today and tomorrow, 3d printing is definitely an ideal tool for innovation, creation, design and precision. Rapid prototyping with this technology helps ensure better strength and precision in product designs, creation of new components, parts and highly sensitive overall projects. The technology might one day replace all modeling and tooling techniques and be sitting in the office computers of every designer, architect and engineer. For those who will recently graduate and enter the engineering hub, 3d design and 3d printing are some of the more prized skill sets that potential employers look for.
Recently, a project that has been creating waves in the Gulf of Mexico is the Stones Deepwater Project. In this behemoth project of Shell Global, the company is using 3d printed prototypes made by 3E-RP for a very complex planning task. The engineers at Shell are facing a recent challenge where they are to use 3d printing and design to allow some intricate on-site strategizing; promising better safety standards. The project also promises the benefits of all the advantages of 3d printing- from cost reduction in the project to the level of customization and independent liberty in creation of 3d models that have never before been done. Shell Global is not only making an overall analysis on the project costs, but the use of 3d printing is helping them to further advance to the final execution and design. According to Adviser of Shell Innovations Shawn Darrah, there is a lot of scope for 3d printing and digital design to facilitate stronger and more efficient prototypes that helps the company transform their products’ quality while manifested in their final, physical form.
This project, however, is not merely a case of producing a replacement part or even a new part altogether. The innovation team led by Darrah has recently implemented 3d printing in the Stones Deepwater Project that allowed them better control and greater ease in project dynamics. The team has created a prototype meant for a complex system that has to have approval. Executive Vice President Robert Patterson of Shell Engineering believes that 3d printing makes rapid prototyping a much faster process that enables engineers to truly engage with their designs and their installation sequence, also helping to assess the safety risks with assembling the parts. The earlier the process is conducted, the better outcomes it provides, according to Patterson. The Vice President further explains that the cost of installation is particularly high for the offshore crew, which is a great challenge in particular.
In ‘the Americas’, the Shell crews have been busy exploring the potential of 3d printing technology for the purpose of rapid prototyping. The Stones project is going on at around two hundred miles southwest of New Orleans i.e. Gulf of Mexico. The engineers of the project had to face the question of how to assemble the gigantic blocks of syntactic foam to create a kind of buoy like structure that is to be disconnected to a Floating Production Storage and Offloading (FPSO) area of the vessel. This project will be installed at two thousand nine hundred meters deep into the gulf, recorded to be the deepest installation of this nature in the world.
A crucial part of this project includes assembling hundreds of blocks of syntactic foam, creating a puzzle type geometric structure. The most important question was which sequence might work the best for the purpose. This is where 3d printing was brought into the picture, and rapid prototyping services were required for its extraordinary value.
The FPSO Lead for the Stones project, Blake Moore explains that usually, the engineers are equipped with no more than mere paper illustrations to try and describe what combination would best work for installation. What the crew has done is that they have actually made use of a 3d printer to create a model of the three dimensional structure. Then, the model of all the components (222 foam blocks to be exact) was made so that it would be easier to plan the sequence correctly, also ensuring safety while assembling. The true emphasis of the project lies in the planning more than actual assembling. As with every 3d printing project, the crew was able to plan the assembling with a physical model rather than something jotted down on paper as an example. The team overall had a better understanding of the scope of the project, which is of vital importance taking into consideration the requirement of precision and the complexity of the parts, plus getting everything correctly in the first try.
Another important aspect of the project is that as the project moved on towards completion; Shell was capable of using the prototype to demonstrate the workings of the system to inspectors and safety authorities in the United States. This expedited the process of approval of the project as the work went on for the first of its kind installation in the Gulf of Mexico region. This extensive rapid prototyping, the issues and problems can be overcome and taken into consideration much ahead of time rather than in the middle of the crucial steps of the actual project- reducing a huge portion of the cost and the delays of the project.
It was widely believed that one of the main challenges of 3d printing in the oil and gas industry was the sheer size of the parts to be manufactured. This, however, is slowly becoming a drawback of the past as the number and type of machines being released in the market today allow for nearly any part of any shape or size to be 3d printed.
The Stone Deepwater Project in particular was a great example of why and how companies like Shell Global are moving on to better use and implementation of 3d printing for project management, planning and execution.