STCA designs, builds and maintains most of the 1,300 indoor test installations and pilot plants. This makes STCA unique. Instrument makers use various technologies, ranging from a lathe from 1948 and traditional glassblowing to state-of-the-art plastic and metal 3D printers. Of the latter, there are already 10 at STCA.
In 2012, the first 3D printer entered the Shell lab in Amsterdam. It could make small, metal prototypes in a more efficient way compared to conventional metalworking techniques. 3D printing offers great freedom of design. This allows parts to be made in such a way that they function more efficiently. For example, because a heating element can be positioned closer to the substance to be heated. In addition to complexity and efficiency, 3D printing technology offers sustainability. Unmelted powder is filtered and reused.
Since that first printer, several metal and plastic printers have been added to the workshops. They can print parts for the test installations at STCA, but also metal parts for use in an actual plant. The metal printers can print any high-quality metal, such as titanium, aluminium or stainless steel, while the original strength is retained. The size of the part gets bigger as the technology advances, the production time continues to decrease, and the product properties are increasingly better. An example. In the past, metal objects still needed heat treatment to obtain the right product properties. With the newer printers, that's no longer necessary.
The various plastic printers at STCA use different techniques. Do you need a product that can withstand heat? Or something that is strong or flexible? STCA uses the plastic printers for visualisation. For example, to print a test print in plastic, prior to printing the object in metal. Or a mini version of a large part. The latest addition is a plastic printer that can print in colour. This is useful to visualise how different soil layers run. Or to see where the most deposits are on a car valve after using a certain lubricant.
Besides prototypes and visualisation, STCA also uses 3D printing to print spare parts. Sometimes a supplier no longer makes certain parts, or they have a very long production time, sometimes even up to a year. These parts can still be 3D printed. Or the 3D printer can make them at a lower cost or in less time. This way, certain equipment can be used for years without STCA having to replace it entirety.
How does 3D printing work? After the designer hits the print button, the software sends a virtual object to the 3D printer, broken up into hundreds or thousands of layers. A computer-controlled laser beam melts metal or plastic powder in layers of 20 to 80 micron (an average hair is 40 micron). As a result, the printer builds a complete end product. By using the 3D printing technique the inside of an object, which you normally cannot access, can also optimally be modelled.
In order to optimise the 3D printing process, STCA experts work together with various manufacturers to test software and hardware. STCA’s 3D printing process has been certified by the independent Lloyd’s Register: https://www.lr.org/en/latest-news/shell-technology-centre-amsterdam-secures-facility-qualification/
Glass has traditionally been a widely used material in laboratories. At STCA, quartz glass is the favourite. This is a pure type of glass that can withstand extremely high temperatures and can withstand many chemical substances. That also makes it a tricky type of glass. It is precisely because it can withstand high temperatures of up to 1000 °C that quartz glass is difficult to process.
Our own research, knowledge and experience have shown that glass is also extremely strong. Provided they are well-designed and made, glass reactors can withstand up to 250 bar pressure. In the case of a car tyre, the average pressure is 2 to 2.5 bar. A glassblower with a high dose of craftsmanship combined with a flame of 2,500 °C can create unique glass research instruments.
Sometimes glass is used together with metal and plastic in the design of an instrument. The designer uses the 3D printing technology, which you can read more about here.
Thanks to the knowledge of and experience in 3D printing and glassblowing, the idea arose to print glass in 3D. A 3D glass printer can make very complex components that could never be made using the conventional techniques. For example, think of a glass “screw” (a spiral shape) that helps to control a gas flow. Another advantage: products from the 3D printer are easily reproducible.
More about 3D printing and glass blowing
At Shell, we are using 3D printing to print spare parts on demand; develop novel equipment and rapidly prototype engineering designs.
The latest manufacturing technology could change how virtually everything is made, one layer at a time.
A 3D printer is causing instrument makers at the Shell Technology Centre Amsterdam to change the way they think.