Between now and 2040, conventional oil production will decline from 65 million to 60 million barrels per day .
But, the global middle class is growing. The world GDP is likely to double by 2030 and energy demand will increase by 25% by 2040. While 10% of that demand will be met by renewable and nuclear power sources, hard-to-reach oil will bridge the gap between declining conventional plays and renewable alternatives .
However, hard-to-reach oil comes at a price. Drilling in deep water requires elaborate facilities designed with incredible civil, architectural, and process engineering. Companies will need to reduce capital expenditures and execute rigorous project management strategies to ensure that the NPV of the project remains economic.
With the Stones project off the coast of Louisiana, Shell was able to do just that .
The Iron Triangle and the Cost & Influence Curves
The tradeoff between cost, schedule, and quality of construction has been studied extensively in project management . This tradeoff, often referred to as the iron triangle, implies that an increase in one dimension must come at the sacrifice of another . With long lead times for equipment and expensive day-rates for contractors, project managers are often forced to balance time, budget, and reliability.
As the project progresses, the effects of the iron triangle become increasingly visible. Due to the compounding nature of oil and gas construction – as equipment is secured and pipes are routed – the influence of the project manager decreases over time. Small changes become increasingly costly, and the cost & influence curves begin to take shape.
Fig 1. Cost and influence curves of a typical capital project
So how do project managers ensure that changes are restricted to the early stages of project development? Shell is using 3D printing to scrutinize engineering design early in the project timeline .
Shell’s Stones Project
Shell’s Stones project is the world’s deepest subsea development . Operating in 9,500 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico, the facility can detach an 82 foot, 1250 metric ton buoy to produce oil and gas during inclement weather .
Fig 2. The FPSO facility used in the Stones project 
Under normal situations, building a computer model of the buoy would take months. But, with the use of 3D printing, the model was able to be completed in just 4 weeks .
The four-story tall buoy contained over 1000 blocks of interlocked foam pieces. Typically, engineers would have to rely on drawings to understand how the pieces fit together. But with the printable model, engineers from all different functions could inspect and critique the miniature design in their own hands. By building the buoy at their desks, engineers and project managers got it right the first time .
But Shell isn’t stopping there. In the near term, Shell is supplementing its research with 3D printing experiments at the Shell Technology Center in Amsterdam. In addition to improving front end engineering design (FEED) of new projects, the company anticipates using 3D printing to manufacture devices that improve current operations. Such instruments will improve facility monitoring, thereby increasing equipment reliability and enhancing the ROI of its operating assets .
As the advancement of technology continues, Shell is expanding the scope of 3D printing to the construction process itself. By partnering with companies like Contour Crafting, Shell will eventually automate the process of pouring concrete. Automating construction will improve safety by eliminating high risk, human-centered activities .
While the 3D printing era is underway, Shell has not fully realized printing potential. Shell should be using its 3D printing capabilities to train core competencies and manage facilities changes. Project managers should use 3D models in the field to communicate execution strategy. Existing facilities should retain 3D models for safety hazard and operability studies (HAZOPs). All engineers should have access to 3D printers to visualize their ideas and “fax” learnings to other sites.
When 3D printing becomes used for larger scale activities, the company should consider printing its own piping. Enabling piping fabrication at the site reduces the dependency on third party manufacturers and shortens lead time. As energy facilities become more modularized, projects can be completely printed at the fabrication yard. In other words, a one stop shop for construction.
But will the iron triangle ever fully disappear? While 3D printing may improve schedule performance, will project cost or quality suffer if materials are printed on site? Will 3D printed materials eventually exhibit economies of scale?
By lessening the impact of the iron triangle, energy will become more accessible to the world, improving the lives of billions around the globe. In a world where resources are becoming ever more costly to develop, innovation is the only solution.
 “2018 Outlook For Energy: A View To 2040”. 2018. Cdn.Exxonmobil.Com. https://cdn.exxonmobil.com/~/media/global/files/outlook-for-energy/2018/2018-outlook-for-energy.pdf.
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 Pollack, J., Helm, J., & Adler, D. (2018). What is the iron triangle, and how has it changed? International Journal of Managing Projects in Business, 11(2), 527-547. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1108/IJMPB-09-2017-0107
 “The Stones Development”. 2018. https://www.ogj.com/content/dam/offshore/site-images/stones_development.pdf.
 “Stones”. 2018. Shell.Com. https://www.shell.com/about-us/major-projects/stones.html.
 “3D Printing”. 2018. Shell.Com. https://www.shell.com/inside-energy/3d-printing.html.
 “Grand Designs: How 3D Printing Could Change Our World”. 2018. Shell.Com. https://www.shell.com/inside-energy/how-3d-printing-is-changing-the-world.html.
[Featured Image] “Verification Of Subsea Facilities – DNV GL”. 2018. DNV GL. https://www.dnvgl.com/services/verification-of-subsea-facilities-3361.