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Key Trends in Energy Parts Manufacturing

Robb Hudson
By Robb Hudson CEO, Mitsui Seiki USA Inc.

While our customers in the energy sector are not exactly singing “Happy Days Are Here Again,” they are much more hopeful than they were a few years ago when the activity went flat, driven by low oil prices.

As their machine tool provider for machining certain critical rotating components, we join them in the positive outlook. During the downturn they wisely reviewed many facets of their production requirements so that when the industry resurged, they could put the new, more efficient manufacturing strategies in place. That’s happening now.

For example, materials are changing in the industrial gas turbine sector. The parts are beginning to look much like the parts in the aerospace industry—although the workpieces are much larger, of course.

Like their counterparts in aerospace, the OEMs of industrial gas turbines are demanding that their engines become increasingly efficient. As such, they are aiming to create higher firing temperatures so that they can, in a sense, burn off an increasing percentage of their own engine emissions and reduce the discharge of NOx gas.

To accomplish this, they are using more heat-resistant, exotic materials. Further, they want to increase the longevity of their components, because, much like the aerospace market, many of these gas turbines are sold on a “power by hour” concept, and the OEM’s profit is derived from increased uptime and reliable, extended performance of the components—particularly in the “hot” section of the engine.

These two main drivers in the industrial gas turbine manufacturing sector are forcing OEMs and their suppliers to seek out manufacturing technology that can cut the tougher materials and provide better parts overall to give them longer, more reliable performance in the turbines. The oil and gas segment uses smaller power generation turbines for powering pipelines and oil rigs.

A gas turbine rotor being serviced at workshop.

Those parts are very similar in size and type to those in aerospace. In fact, many of them are aerospace engine derivatives, which makes sense since many of the very large OEMs are in both businesses, such as Rolls Royce and GE. That sector, too, is continuously looking for ways to lower component weight, improve efficiencies and extend part life.

It is important to note that Hurricane Harvey and its heart-wrenching devastation could have lasting effects on the oil and gas sector. Just prior to Harvey, we were experiencing a boost in activity on the exploration side of oil and gas—drilling.

Many of the drilling tools, particularly on the bit portion of the drill, are made out of very hard and special alloys, such as Inconel and high-nickel alloys that are strong and tough to cut. While the tolerances on those parts are looser than some of the more critical components we’ve been discussing, the materials alone call for some of the machining center solutions we provide.

For instance, the Blue Arc technology developed by Mitsui Seiki and GE is of particular interest to the drill manufacturers, and the turbine manufacturers are showing interest in it as well.

A manufacturing challenge for all of these hard metal applications is making those costly, consumable cutting tools last longer.

Further, cutting those hard materials can loosen up a machine tool pretty quickly over time, sometimes in just one or two years. Then the problem becomes maintaining the desired part geometry and tolerances. Field-proven and established precise, heavy-duty machining centers, and promising emerging technologies such as Blue Arc, are getting the job done.

Our friends in energy may not be belting out “Happy Days are Here Again” just yet, especially all those affected by Harvey. However, to their credit, because they were smart to use the earlier pricing downturn wisely to rethink their approach to part design and manufacturing, they can begin to rebuild and apply the latest technology to accomplish their goals.

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