Three-dimensional (3D) printing is revolutionising manufacturing. Instead of cutting out products from blocks of material, it builds them up in layers. Companies are already using this approach to produce rocket engine components and jet engine parts.

Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam in the Netherlands is using it to make unique parts – and causing instrument makers like Joost Kroon to change the way they think.

Did you know?

NASA uses the same model of machine as Shell to manufacture intricate metal parts for its new Space Launch System.

Thinking in slices

Joost studied instrument making at the Intermediate Technical School in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He uses the 3D printer at Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam to make unique parts for Shell research and development projects around the world.

3D printing, also known as selective laser melting, is a type of additive manufacturing. Conventionally, instrument makers start with a piece of metal or plastic and drill or cut material away. But this new approach builds up an object. The printer uses a powerful laser beam to fuse powdered metal and make instruments, layer by layer, in microscopic slices of around just 0.03 mm each – tens of times thinner than a human hair.

“We can make complex, innovative instruments that are impossible to make with other manufacturing technologies,” says Joost. “The challenge for engineers is to think in terms of layers or slices, not in terms of taking material away.”

As an example, Joost mentions a connector he designed and made for a pilot unit that breaks down refinery by-products into building blocks for higher value chemical products. The connector forms part of an instrument that removes liquid mist from gas, which could otherwise cause blockages in the system and damage the gas analyser. By using 3D printing, Joost created a design that provides heat through a channel inside the connector, instead of from a separate heating element outside. Three special filters are mounted on the heated connector to remove the mist from the gas.

“The new solution is much more efficient than its predecessor and it eliminates time-consuming maintenance procedures,” says Joost. Once the design was finalised, it took 60 hours to print, whereas conventional methods can take many weeks.”

Cost-effective

3D printing has many advantages. There is no waste because the unused metal powder can be filtered and reused. This gives a significant cost saving, especially in the use of expensive high-alloy metal powders.

It also has the potential to speed up delivery times. “A refinery can wait several months for a specialised valve to be delivered, but this approach can manufacture it on site within hours,” says Joost.

For a petrochemicals complex that keeps thousands of different spare parts in stock or a remote offshore production facility, the ability to make instruments and parts on demand would be a huge benefit.

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