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3D Printing Smart Pigs

If you follow the oil and gas industry technology, you may have heard of the ‘smart pig.’ A pig is basically a cylinder of metal sent through a pipeline. It is commonly used to clean out debris that could cause pressure changes or damage to the pipe.

More recently is the introduction of smart pigs. These contraptions go through the pipeline with a 3d-scanner that can identify cracks and damage to the pipeline that could eventually cause ruptures and serious accidents. It was mentioned in an earlier 3d-printing in the oil and gas industry article the problems with the smart pigs in terms of time delays. These pigs cannot directly transmit information about damage to operators. The pipeline is underground usually and the metal is so thick that signals cannot be sent through the pipe.

If a rupture is imminent, reducing the time between identification of a problem and actually fixing the problem becomes much more urgent. So what would happen if the problem could be fixed immediately upon identification? This would significantly reduce spills and serious environmental disasters that people have become accustomed to hearing about from this industry.

To accomplish this, the pig would have to be able to apply a patch or welding job on the spot. When dealing with extremely volatile and toxic substances, using an open flame would be impossible. When these problems are actually fixed in the industry, the flow is turned off which causes a longer time delay and loss of profit. The current method to fix cracks isolates the point of the problem, then fixes it. However, it is more than possible to isolate the crack while the pipeline is still flowing. This article here give a better idea of some of the technology already used in these smart pigs.

The idea of a having a pig mounted with a 3d-printer that can isolate a flaw in the pipeline from flow has been demonstrated in a variety of technologies, from 3d-printing metals, printing underwater, and current 3d-scanning technologies already available.

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