3D Printing Can Solve Oil Production’s Supply Chain Crisis

As manufacturers have had to shut down this spring because of the pandemic, oil companies are in a supply chain crisis as a result because their spare parts aren’t going to be coming any time soon. Manufacturers and even suppliers were closed down, which meant that parts couldn’t be shipped, maintenance was delayed, and that means possible equipment breakdowns and production outages.

Big oil production often depends on an international supply chain, with different parts being made in different parts of the world. But if companies aren’t producing or shippers aren’t shipping, then it doesn’t matter how badly the producer needs a part, it’s just not coming.

I recently read an article on OilPrice.com how additive manufacturing is coming to the rescue for oil producers who have been facing spare parts shortages, and how 3D printing may be the new normal for manufacturers and oil field suppliers.

With access to a 3D printer, companies don’t need to wait for the delivery of complex parts from thousands of miles away. What’s more, they don’t need to keep as much inventory as they have to now, for emergency replacements, because of something called digital inventory.

The oil and gas industry could benefit from 3D printing as they're in the midst of a supply chain crisis.According to Baker Hughes’ global head of additive manufacturing services, Mikhail Gladkikh, keeping digital inventory and providing what BH calls “emergency services” are two of the biggest growth areas for the technology in oil and gas.

To create a workaround, companies are now storing what’s called digital inventory, which refers to the virtual, non-physical storage of the component parts’ manufacturing specs and blueprints. This part is called a digital passport.

Once the digital passport exists, it can be transferred to any 3D print shop that can produce the part to spec, including the right raw materials. (All this will/should have been established long beforehand, so companies can be ready for just this eventuality.)

One effect this can have on an oil production company is that it can reduce storage and inventory costs, as parts can be printed a few days before they’re needed, rather than ordered and stored for weeks and months. This means maintenance and replacements can be made at the last moment, rather than a few weeks prematurely.

It also means companies don’t have to keep parts of different sizes and configurations on hand for every contingency. They can print parts as needed, which will significantly reduce overall inventory costs and keep producers from tying up their cash in “just in case” inventory.

This can also help oil companies shorten their supply chain. Rather than having parts shipped from overseas, with the months-long production and delivery cycle, oil producers can contract with regional or local 3D printers to actually create the parts they need.

Better yet, imagine an oil company that invested in its own steel 3D printer to create a lot of its own not-so-commonly-used parts. 3D printing is not really for those low-cost, mass produced parts like nuts and bolts or fiberglass tubulars. It’s better suited for those once-a-year parts that are rarely ordered, but are still essential to production.

3D printing can also allow prototyping of new parts and systems. Rather than hiring contract manufacturers to produce expensive working prototypes, it’s now possible to print an entire new system for a fraction of the price, making changes as needed and then reprinting the upgrades.

Finally, this can help wholesalers and distributors even change up their business model, letting them become 3D printing companies, rather than only storing and selling other companies’ inventory. They can become suppliers themselves, producing parts to different customers’ specs as needed.

3D printing still faces some regulatory issues, since they have not created all the rules and policies needed to allow 3D printed parts to be used in the field. Until then, companies can start investigating and investing in 3D printing technology and processes and make it a part of their supply chain process.

I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business, including pivoting within their industry. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

Photo credit: mhouge (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)

Author: David Marshall
I’ve been a manufacturing executive, as well as a sales and marketing professional, for a few decades. Now I help companies turn around their own business. If you would like more information, please visit my website and connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.