The harsh, remote landscape of Alaska’s North Slope does not evoke thoughts of digital transformation. At yet when it is home to many of your company’s assets, as is the case for ConocoPhillips, sometimes the best IT strategy is to bring technologies closer to the edge.
“Aside from being extremely cold, working on the Slope presents major supply chain challenges,” says Pragati Mathur, chief digital and information officer for the energy exploration and production stalwart. “Carlo had an inkling that 3D printing could really change the game.”
Mathur, who held tech chief roles at Staples and Biogen before coming to ConocoPhillips in 2021, is referring to Carlo De Bernardi, a principal engineer at ConocoPhillips responsible for scaling the company’s adoption of 3D printing. To understand 3D printing’s value proposition in this region, says De Bernardi, you must first appreciate the extreme operating conditions.
On Alaska’s North Slope, about 250 miles from Fairbanks, lies Kuparuk (pictured above). A stone’s throw from the Arctic Ocean, the region is subject to winters as long as they are harsh. Temperatures frequently drop to negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and polar nights plunge the area into darkness for weeks at a time.
Yet this site is home to one of ConocoPhillips’s three major development programs in the state, and central to its operations are the company’s gas turbines. Through a process of combustion, these turbines compress most associated natural gas, which is then re-injected into the reservoir for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), which in turn generates the electricity that powers production facilities, support infrastructure, and some drilling equipment, such as draw works and mud pumps.
The process of combustion that enables the turbines to compress associated natural gas and produce electricity is itself enabled by a key component known as a burner plug, which allows fuel to be mixed with compressed air. With use, these plugs wear out, and since many of the original plugs are no longer manufactured, they can be replaced only by local machine shops that still employ traditional manufacturing processes.