Shell leans further into 3D printing with innovative industry-first leak repair clamp

Oil and gas multinational Shell has unveiled the results of its latest foray into 3D printing: a unique, end-usable leak repair clamp.

Designed to restore the integrity of pipelines impacted by defects or corrosion, the part itself is critical to ensuring continuous oil and gas supply, as well as facility safety. By Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) 3D printing the component, Shell says it may soon be possible to produce it more efficiently, in a way that could make it easier and cheaper to customize and deploy at pace.

Shell's WAAM 3D printed leak repair clamp. Photo via Shell.
Shell’s WAAM 3D printed leak repair clamp. Photo via Shell.

An end-usable proof of concept?

Due to the limited number of firms that specialize in fabricating pressure enclosures, Shell says manufacturing a simple leak repair clamp can take up to five days, while producing more complex components can take more than four weeks. This is an issue, given the complexity of some piping systems, and the environmental and supply implications of leaks caused by pipeline damage. 

To meet this need for a rapidly-deployable, custom repair solution, with the mechanical integrity to ensure the continued safe operation of a mining asset, Shell has turned to 3D printing. Compared to casting or forging, the firm says the technology “has an edge,” in that it allows for the production of near-net shape parts with minimal wastage, and negates the need for bespoke molds or dies. 

In order to put this idea to the test, Shell has opted to work with TEAM Inc. and Vallourec to design and test a proof of concept repair clamp, made entirely using WAAM 3D printing. Once printed, the team established a technical specification and inspection test plan for their initial prototype, which was built to meet the quality assurance needed for utilization within medium-pressure steam systems. 

An example of a complex piping-clamp set up. Photo via Shell.
An example of a complex piping-clamp set up. Photo via Shell.

During testing, the device successfully passed a burst test conducted at 142.4 bar (over five times that of the intended design pressure), which according to Shell, qualifies it for “field applications.” Additionally, while the part’s lead time was longer than that of a conventional clamp, the firm says this was due to a focus on avoiding part failure, hence this was a “design choice” that could be changed in future. 

Using the insights gained from the initiative, Shell is now working to create a database with all its inspection and qualification test results that could help reduce the part’s criticality classification (and its NDT requirements). Moving forwards, the company also aims to set up a library of qualified configurations, as a means of reducing the qualification requirements for producing similar future products.

In a statement issued alongside the project’s results, Shell called for collaboration, saying: “Activities to create extensive data sets about 3D printing spare parts are resource intensive. We achieve greater knowledge faster by collaborating with interested end users who have similar needs. Process standardisation of WAAM technology, specifically in quality control, is paramount to improve lead time and reduce costs. Shell believes that a great leap for the adoption of 3D printing in the energy sector can come from such a standardization across the industry.”

The prototype leak repair clamp installed at a Shell site. Photo via Shell.
The prototype 3D printed leak repair clamp installed at a Shell site. Photo via Shell.

Oil and gas AM gains momentum

As a leading oil and gas multinational, Shell’s continued interest in 3D printing bodes well for the technology’s future in the sector. Already, the firm has worked with GE Additive to develop a 3D printed oxygen hydrogen micromixer, Poly Products to reverse engineer and 3D print offshore rig spares, and 3D Metalforge to 3D print heat exchanger tubing

In July 2021, AML3D also revealed that it had 3D printed an eight-ton pressure vessel demonstrator for ExxonMobil. Though the initial order was worth just $190,000, the project was thought to provide a chance to showcase the technology’s oil and gas potential. 

Elsewhere, Hunting PLC has taken a slightly different approach to entering the industry, by acquiring 27% of Cumberland Additive. When the deal was announced late last year, it was said to mark Hunting’s entry into 3D printing, and provide it with opportunities to address the aerospace, defense, and oil and gas markets.

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Featured image shows the prototype 3D printed leak repair clamp installed at a Shell site. Photo via Shell.