Under pressure: how GE Oil & Gas is engineering its way through tough times for the sector

Helen Knight talks to GE Oil & Gas subsea specialist Federica Noera about how new materials technologies are helping the firm face up to the challenges facing the sector 

It is no secret that the oil and gas industry is facing tough times.

Crude oil prices have dropped by almost 50 percent since their high of $155 a barrel last summer. And while the International Monetary Fund predicts prices will gradually recover – at least partially – over the coming years, it expects them to go no higher than around $70 a barrel for the next decade or so.

BP's Deepsea Stavanger platform off the coast of Angola
BP’s Deepsea Stavanger platform off the coast of Angola

What’s more, the decline in mature oil fields such as those in the North Sea is pushing producers to explore sites in deeper waters, meaning they are operating in far more challenging conditions.

As a result, companies in the industry are increasingly looking to technology to help them succeed in the face of these competing pressures, according to Federico Noera, the global subsea systems engineering general manager for General Electric Oil & Gas. “The market is really pushing for an overall optimisation in costs,” he says. “But this is coupled with the need to extract oil from harsher and more complex environments, which often have a high degree of corrosion-causing chemicals and contaminants, and the need to deploy components at fairly high water depths, at fairly high pressures.”

All of this is forcing companies like GE Oil & Gas to explore new materials technologies, to enable them to produce components that are able to survive in these high pressure and highly corrosive environments, without the use of expensive stainless steels, for example, he says.

“In a cost-constrained environment you have got to find a perfect metal and material combination for your components that means they can cope with more complex reservoirs, in order to allow you to keep up your production rates and realise the profitability that you want from the seam.”

Deeper wells can often contain high levels of carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide or hydrogen, all of which are extremely corrosive, says Noera, who took on his current role in May 2012 after a previous role as Advanced Technology Leader in Engineering. 

So the company is exploring the use of advanced coatings, he says. “This allows us to use traditional materials that are less expensive than high grade steels or highly stainless steels, but with the same anti-corrosion characteristics.”

GE's deepwater subsea production tree
GE’s deepwater subsea production tree

To find the most effective coatings, the company has been exploring technologies developed by the aviation and power generation businesses within GE. That is because conditions within the high temperature combustion chambers of aircraft engines or power plants can be every bit as harsh as those at the bottom of a deep sea oil reservoir, says Noera.

In one recent effort the business worked with GE’s central R&D teams, known as Global Research Centres, alongside some of its suppliers, to develop a new type of valve coating for subsea applications, which is able to cope with these more challenging conditions.

The company is also investigating the use of 3D printing technologies, as a means of reducing lead times in supplying spare parts to remote offshore platforms.

“If there were spare parts needed for a drilling operation, for example, we could send a complete digital model of the components out to the drill ship, which might be sitting in the middle of the ocean,” says Noera. “The parts could then be produced by a 3D printer on the ship, improving the overall manufacturing and delivery time.”

Although still in the research phase, the company has been applying the technology to different components in a bid to evaluate the strength and corrosion resistance of materials and parts produced using the technique. To date trials have proven successful, he says.

Ultimately the technology could allow them to produce components with complex shapes much more easily than using conventional manufacturing techniques. “We will start with non-mission critical components to prove the idea, prove the concept, test and learn,” he says.

To develop the technique, the oil and gas business has again been investigating how it is being applied across other parts of GE. Titanium and metal alloy components for use in the combustion chambers of large power plants are already being printed in this way, with all the required mechanical characteristics.

“So actually you can replace the previous supply chain where you drew (the component), bought the raw materials and then machined the shape that you needed,” he says.  

Although this change in the way parts are produced will inevitably alter the way the company works with its suppliers, many manufacturers will already be moving from traditional machining and assembly techniques to embrace 3D printing, he argues.

“We have examples from the aviation industry, where the majority of components had previously been produced by traditional suppliers using normal machining processes, who are now 3D printing themselves.”

Where possible the company tries to work with its suppliers on a partnership basis, in which data gathered on both production lines is shared to ensure any necessary improvements are made, Noera says.

So, for example, the company uses computer modelling to ensure data from engineering departments and the production line is constantly updated, helping to boost productivity, he says. “You have models coming from the engineering community which are linked back to the CADCAM system and are fed into the supply chain, and then data gathered on the factory floor is sent back to engineering for improvement,” he says.

The same process takes place amongst suppliers. “The digital models can move through the system, so they can much more accurately represent whatever is happening during the different stages (of the production process)”, says Noera.

This allows for much more rigorous control of the shop floor at all times, he says. Ultimately digital testing of components could also be integrated into the system, replacing qualification testing of individual components as they come off the production line, he adds.

“There are so many different opportunities for cost improvement, for cost efficiency and for reliability of information,” he says. “This big data can cut across the whole system, not just the engineering portion or the manufacturing portion, but your full supply chain.”

This article originally appeared in The Engineer’s sister publication MWP Advanced Manufacturing