Buoyed by success in Nigeria, Shell envisions a strong digital future for 3D printed spare parts management

Part produced by Shell - Image via Shell

A decade ago, Shell installed its first additive manufacturing machine, a metal laser-printing system intended for the manufacturing of unique testing equipment for laboratory experiments at its Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam (STCA) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

However, the adoption of these technologies did not advance at the same rhythm across all the subsidiaries of the multinational energy company. For instance, it’s only last year that the Singapore-based Pulau Bukom manufacturing site of the company launched a Digital Twin Technology as part of a four-year project.

The fact is, subsidiaries across the world continue to learn from each other in order to experience this technology at its best. That’s anyway what we realized in the case of SCTA that decided to optimize its repair and replacement strategies using 3D printing.

The approach adopted by the Dutch team is based on the same successful strategy undertook by their Nigerian colleagues for their offshore operations.

First and foremost, it should be noted that Shell has the required in-house capabilities to manufacture parts itself –15 polymer, ceramic, and metal printers located at its technology centres in Amsterdam and Bangalore -, but as from now, this option will only be leveraged in emergency cases and when IP is not an issue.

To source 3D printed parts, the company will now first collaborate with an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) qualified for the given 3D printed parts. In case, no OEM is available, it will reverse engineer the part and have a commercial supplier print it from a 3D model, this in compliance with intellectual property (IP) laws.

By taking the first route, the Nigerian subsidiary repaired a small component within a large piece of equipment for which replacement parts are no longer produced. They replaced the polymer seal cover on the mooring buoy of an offshore structure without shutting down production and without having to perform costly, complex and perilous heavy lifting at sea.

The company explained that the conventional replacement of the whole assembly would have taken approximately 16 weeks. Working against the clock to replace the seal before the tropical rain season, the Nigerian team modelled the component with a 3D scanner from a local supplier. Because there was no qualified local printer, the file was sent to a European printer. 3D printing reduced the final cost of the maintenance by 90% compared to a conventional replacement and it took merely 2 weeks to produce the parts. The best part of the game is that they have been able to make substantial savings in their offshore operations.

I will keep in mind another interesting takeaway from this project. While the latest Africa-dedicated AM conference that I attended revealed that the adoption of this technology is mainly focused on research on the continent, it should be noted that tangible use cases are currently being explored by users across key vertical industries.  The only thing is that, most of them remain confidential, therefore not share to a wider audience that might learn from them. Despite the numerous environmental challenges that are unique to each country, we should recognize that those users across key vertical industries, have the right key to advance this technology at a faster pace, and for the benefit of all.

 The next step for Shell: implementing a digital warehouse

Going back to the activities of the Amsterdam team. Let’s note that the primary goal of the company is now to develop a digital warehouse which stocks all the information required to print components whenever they are needed, in partnership between Shell’s technical authority, OEMs and local partners. 

A digital warehouse enabled by local eco-systems would presents true lead time reduction, responsible use of resources and progress for the local communities where Shell operates.

At manufacturing sites, access to 3D printing services reduces the need to stockpile components. Teams merely need to print the replacements needed, saving both time and money. For example, at Pernis refinery in the Netherlands, Shell is testing the use of 3D printing to produce impellers for a production critical, 7-stage centrifugal pump. This is the first of its kind additive manufacturing application for components used in a critical service-multi-stage pump.

This project is undertaken in close partnership with Baker Hughes, who will be printing the part. This pilot – if successful – would demonstrate the refinery could supply 3D printed pump impellers “just in time” instead of stocking the spare parts for years. The company estimates that 3D printing these production critical parts reduces by 75% the time needed to supply them, compared to using conventional manufacturing processes.

Baker Hughes has a decade long experience in additive manufacturing and sees 3D printing as a key service pillar for our Turbomachinery & Process Solutions business. With Shell, we apply 3D printing to mitigate supply chain risks when lead time is critical. All actors in this value chain must now come together to develop the right framework where 3D printing brings enhanced value to the energy sector”, Alessandro Bresciani, Vice President, Services for Baker Hughes’ Turbomachinery & Process Solutions business.

Today, the company has installed over fifty 3D printed spare parts in operating assets, both produced in-house as well as sourced from different manufacturers. However, its greatest source of pride is that by exploring this route of digital warehouse, it becomes uniquely positioned to reduce the need for purchasing, holding and maintaining a large inventory of spare parts, which in the end, drastically reduces cost and waste. Not to mention that, printing close to the destination asset reduces the emissions associated with transportation. It also helps create shorter and more effective supply chains supported by high-skilled local capabilities.

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