By Stephen Eisenhammer
NEWCASTLE, England, Jan 23 (Reuters) - General Electric's oil and gas division will start pilot production of 3D printed metal fuel nozzles for its gas turbines in the second half of this year, a major step towards using the technology for mass-manufactured parts in the industry.
Full production of the printed fuel nozzles is expected in 2015, Eric Gebhardt, Chief Technology Officer at GE Oil & Gas , told Reuters.
The move follows hot on the heels of GE Aviation, which said last year it would use 3D printing to produce fuel nozzles for its LEAP jet engine, a high profile decision that for many sealed the commerciality of the technique.
Oil services firm Halliburton has also used 3D printing to produce parts used in drilling although not on such a large scale.
Forms of advanced manufacturing are increasingly vital in the oil and gas sector as companies move into extreme environments such as ultra deep-water or the Arctic.
3D printing allows complex shapes to be built up in layers from particles of plastics or metal, enabling engineers to realise designs impossible to mass-manufacture before.
GE Oil and Gas, one of GE's fastest growing divisions, is investing $100 million over the next two years on technology development with a "significant portion" going on 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. The division has installed dozens of plastic and metal 3D printers across its businesses.
Fuel nozzles, which feeds combustion in a gas turbine, are currently made by welding together a number of sub-components, a process hugely simplified by printing it in one piece.
The other piece of kit that GE Oil and Gas is looking to produce using 3D printers is electric submersible pumps used to artificially bring oil to the surface.
"Most of these are about four or five inches in diameter and then about an inch or two in height. It's the right size to put into some of the additive manufacturing," Gebhardt said.
The technology is still mainly used for prototyping, but even in this seemingly basic use, improvements can be dramatic.
At GE's pipeline inspection plant in Newcastle, where 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.
Pigs are custom designed to deal with the particular pipeline, whether it be hundreds of metres under the sea or full of corrosive sour gas.
Trial parts can now be printed on location, in plastic, to see whether they fit and work properly. Only then is the part ordered, paid for and delivered in the final material.
For senior engineer Dave Bell the printer is one of the biggest shifts he has seen in his 30 years at the site.
"It's a game changer," he said. "Engineering is all about compromise and this allows you to trial concepts quickly and cheaply."
But challenges remain, predominantly around the size that can be printed and the surface finish produced.
"Now we're going to have to see how large they can get over time," Gebhardt said. "Will it follow Moore's law where it is going to double in size every 18 months? That's kind of what we're seeing right now. But when is it going to reach a natural inflection point? That's something we have to work through."
For Richard Hague, a professor at Nottingham University and an expert in additive manufacturing, the size of much of the equipment used in the oil and gas industry is simply too big.
"It's cost effective if it's small and complicated, but when it's large and complicated it's much less effective."