Interview with Alex Finch, Tri-D Dynamics. Innovators in Energy Technology Series.

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Interview with Alex Finch, Tri-D Dynamics. Innovators in Energy Technology Series.

Taking fiber optics and downhole sensors to the next stage by creating 3D-printed customized Smart Pipes has the potential to not only make operations more efficient, but to easily convert depleted wells into producers of other energy sources, such as geothermal energy. Welcome to an interview with Alex Finch, part of the team of Tri-D Dynamics. He talks to us about their exciting new smart pipes and RFID (radio-frequency ID) technologies. Tri-D Dynamics will be participating in AAPG’s U-Pitch New Technology Showcase.

What is your name and your background?
  • Alex Finch, Co-Founder and President, Tri-D Dynamics (blog post writer)
    • B.S. Structural Engineering, University of California at San Diego (UCSD)
    • M.S. Aerospace Engineering, Purdue University
    • Fmr. Structural Engineer, Aerospace Corporation
    • Fmr. Additive Manufacturing Engineer, NAVAIR
  • Deepak Atyam, Co-Founder and CEO, Tri-D Dynamics
    • B.S. Aerospace Engineering, University of California at San Diego (UCSD)
    • M.S. Aerospace Engineering, Purdue University
    • Fmr. Manufacturing Engineer, SpaceX
    • Fmr. Aerospace Engineer, NASA
  • Jesse Lang, Co-Founder and VP Operations, Tri-D Dynamics
    • B.S. Structural Engineering, University of California at San Diego (UCSD)
    • Fmr. Manufacturing Engineer, San Diego Composites
What have been some of your research interests?
  • I've been involved with researching metal additive manufacturing (or 3d printing) in various capacities for about 9 years now. Within this field, I've researched all aspects of the technology - from designing new parts for metal 3d printing, to investigating how defects form in fabricated parts, to designing new printing technologies themselves. I've seen the technology from different perspectives - as a user, a customer, a researcher, and a designer and engineer which has provided me with a lot of insight into its potential as well as its limits.
  • Additionally, in recent years I've become fascinated with the potential of how data can transform the operations of a business to become more efficient, save money, or actually expand revenues through previously unseen/unknown insights. Over the past decade, technologies have significantly improved for data capture and transfer in a variety of industries and applications from earth image monitoring from space, to advertising personalization, to characterization of oil and gas wells. These improvements have made data acquisition cheaper, higher resolution, more reliable, and more frequent. And my belief is that new data is the foundation for new knowledge creation can lead to improvements across the spectrum of an organization and industry.
How did you get involved in 3D printing?
  • I first got involved with the technology as an undergraduate at UCSD. There, my co-founder, Deepak Atyam (CEO), had put together a small NASA-supported group of students (including myself and our 3rd co-founder/VP of Operations Jesse Lang) with the goal of becoming the first university group to successfully design, build, and test a 3d printed rocket engine. After 1.5 years of hard work, really self-teaching ourselves as 18-20 year olds the skills required to get the job done, we were able to accomplish the successful test in 2013. Following this, we started to build momentum by growing the student org to over 70 members, gaining sponsorship from companies like Lockheed Martin, and taking on bigger projects including test firing a larger 3d printed engine as well as becoming the first student group to build and fly a rocket powered by a 3d printed engine.
  • After this initial foray into metal 3d printing I became fascinated with exploring other applications of the technology. At this time, around 2012-2015, metal 3d printing was still a fairly new technology being used in industrial applications. In 2014 I took an internship with the U.S. Navy where my primary project was to create custom maintenance tooling for F-18 fighter jets. Next, I took a job with the Aerospace Corporation and was initially hired to help beef up their metal 3d printing expertise. While there, I worked on projects with customers in different areas of additive manufacturing including helping to redesign satellite components to reduce weight by taking advantage of 3d printing's ability to create intricately shaped parts. After my time at the Aerospace Corporation, I was fortunate to be able to attend grad school at Purdue University to further understand how defects are formed in some 3d printed parts and develop ways to better mitigate them. Finally, with Jesse and Deepak at Tri-D Dynamics, we've worked heavily on developing a new type of 3d printing, called Cold Metal Fusion, that without melting can form structural metal on top of other types of materials. This non-melting, or solid-state, process allows for unique features and applications to be realized.
What are some of the applications? What makes this different than other approaches?
  • The application of Cold Metal Fusion that we see having the greatest impact on the O&G industry is the ability to embed electronics, sensors, and circuitry into metal. This is important for industries that operate in harsh conditions which make it difficult for electronics to function properly without protection. Embedding the electronics into the metal itself provides that protection in most cases. Furthermore, Cold Metal Fusion (counter to most metal 3d printing) thrives best in the application space where relatively low geometric complexity but high volume production is required. By being able to embed electronics at industrial production speeds, we see CMF as a scalable manufacturing tool for producing smart products that can potentially provide the value of:
    • Inherently sensing and communicating various well/borehole characteristics to surface in real-time via Smart Pipes
    • Accurately and easily managing inventory via embedded RFIDs
    • Powering downhole operations via embedded power cables in Smart Pipes
    • Detecting leaks or tampering in pipe lines via Smart Pipes
    • Structural health monitoring of critical failure points in pumps via embedded sensors
What do you do with all the data you collect? How do you organize and manage it?
  • We are looking to work with potential users of the smart products we are developing to best understand how the information should optimally be organized, packaged, and delivered. In the current iterations of our prototypes, we provide the data in a user-friendly GUI designed to provide information in a digestible and actionable format for personnel in the field. In the future, we hope to work with those users to improve our processing of the data to give more rapid insights.
What are some of your next steps?
  • We have spent the past year investigating what different needs of companies in the North American O&G industry are, including access to more and different types of data in real-time. Through this work, we believe many of these needs can be addressed by the potential of smart hardware such as Smart Pipes. These insights lead us to the development of a Smart Pipe prototype that we are working to get feedback on to help iterate our current hypotheses.
  • Our next steps are to:
    • Continue to have conversations with as many people as we can who are involved with planning, drilling, completing, and managing production of wells to gain knowledge about the industry needs and ecosystem. This will include outreach to individuals as well as attendance at industry events and conferences.
    • Gain feedback on the good and the bad of our Smart Pipe prototype to inform future iterations.
    • Test our Smart Pipe prototypes in well-like conditions.
    • Pilot our Smart Pipe prototypes in actual wells.
What would you like to accomplish in the short term? medium term? long term?
  • In the short term, as an emerging technology startup with the realization that we have a tremendous opportunity to learn, develop, and grow, we are primarily looking to have conversations with those individuals involved in planning, drilling, completing, and managing production of wells to continue to gain insights.
  • In the medium term, we want to pilot the initial prototypes of our smart products, such as our Smart Pipe, in wells to better understand their effectiveness at gathering and communicating critical data in a timely manner.
  • In the long term, we see ourselves being a trusted, reliable, and innovative supplier of smart hardware and actionable data to the oil and gas industry with the intention of helping companies drive greater EUR while reducing operational costs and footprint.
Can you recommend a book to our audience?
  • One book that has given a fundamental perspective to how we approach the prospect of building and introducing new ways of doing things (stemming mostly from technological innovation) to the world is Zero to One by Peter Thiel. Peter is an entrepreneur and investor (Paypal, Palantir) that uses his experiences to provide a framework on an optimistic outlook to building the future. I think it is a great read for anyone curious about how they can impact the future of their business, their industry, and their society.

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