Accelerating autonomous operations in oil and gas

Digital, Digitalisation, SNC Lavalin

Prior to the COVID-19 global pandemic, the oil and gas (O&G) industry in the Middle East was faced with a number of challenges to maintain sustainable growth. This includes supply pressure from unconventional energy production such as shale oil and gas and a long-term global trend towards decarbonization. Many of these external conditions have been evolving over the years, pointing toward the necessity for traditional O&G operations to become more streamlined and efficient.

A catalyst for change

During the COVID-19 crisis many unforeseen challenges have emerged.  The oil price has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, causing losses in revenues for operators on a global scale. As a result, some projects have been placed on hold or cancelled, and due to lockdowns and travel restrictions the industry has also delayed many scheduled activities. In addition, these disruptions have changed the risk profiles of various projects.

Up to now, the global O&G industry has struggled to really capitalize on digital transformation opportunities that are fueling productivity gains in other industries. This is due to a lack of understanding around what can be achieved by digital innovation. Digitalization has therefore been perceived as expensive, without a clear view of how it can deliver value.  The current Covid-19 pandemic has interrupted industry operations and driven an acceleration in adopting and harnessing digitalization in order to address immediate operational issues and ensure business continuity and long-term growth.  The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably been a powerful catalyst for change that has brought the value of digitalization into sharp focus. 

The role of digitalization

The COVID-19 pandemic is driving increased innovation in the O&G industry – from remote working to de-manning of process sites.  By all accounts, the COVID-19 crisis is not over, so even the work-from-home directives may continue for some time. Companies are seriously re-evaluating their office space requirements now that remote working has become normal. A survey conducted by S&P Global found that 67% of over 500 IT decision-makers expected “expanded or universal working from home policies” to remain in place long term or permanently.  It is only a matter of time before these considerations start to impact the O&G processing site - from construction to operations. Straight forward cost reductions can be realized by not having to physically transport and house staff, reducing or eliminating office space and reducing human exposure to workplace hazards.

With current challenges to access O&G fields and on-site operations, digital solutions are imperative to perform tasks remotely, from any location at any time, while reducing costs. In the short term, digital technologies are essential in keeping businesses going. Now that we have overcome the immediate panic to get everyone set up at home we need to think about how to turn short term solutions into more sustainable operational processes. Besides some obvious examples of activities that could be conducted remotely such as administration, planning and cost controllers, technicians could use laptops to configure, troubleshoot and calibrate equipment remotely. Much of this work can be done from the comfort and safety of the home office.

Increased use of off-the-shelf technologies will also help deliver specific productivity and safety improvements. For example, manpower can be removed from hazardous conditions by employing drones and robots. We could adapt existing, remotely controlled robots that use machine learning to analyze video streams in place of human visual inspections.  This is already a fairly mainstream practice in the nuclear and waste water industries.    In the future we might see insect sized drones flying from weld to weld or from flange to flange to do our visual inspections.  For the reduced number of staff still working on-site, artificial intelligence (AI) driven video analytics and connected worker applications can be used to drive new safety measures such as enforcing COVID-19 protective wear and social distancing.

In the medium to long-term, AI can be further used to enhance planning, based on various available plant information, but also taking in account market demand, forecasted prices, inventory status, health and safety. In brownfield assets, to a great extent, the future autonomous assets are already built.  Available information about these assets needs to be converted to a basic digital standard that will support future endeavors. Improved data transport infrastructure is also another key piece for digital transformation – this includes embracing new networking techniques, state of the art cybersecurity practices and emerging technologies such as 5G. This is underpinned by mastering the management of data that we collect as the basic toolset required to achieve autonomous operations.

The roadmap to digital asset

A digital asset roadmap describes the route to improved CAPEX and OPEX performance for an O&G asset through a managed path towards digital maturity.  The journey starts with an assessment of the current operations and then mapping technologies and processes towards future objectives.  As we move along the journey, the horizon expands to include more ambitious objectives, possibly through more complex solutions or the adoption of new and emerging technologies.

Digital maturity is a slow burn though and cannot be achieved overnight.  It is only partially about the tools and technologies and much more about the organization’s ability to make use of them. It also requires the investment in technology, people and training. In addition to delivering a technological solution, this should be embedded in the fabric of the operation, to build trust in the technology and to then progress in the digital asset maturity journey. Like our nearly universal experience with suddenly working from home, we start with basic technologies first, build competency and confidence and then move on to the next level of enhancing remote working processes.

A good example of this is the concept of the digital twin, which is a virtual replica of a physical asset. SNC-Lavalin describes the digital twin in terms of “Elements”. Each Element involves more technologies and increasing levels of operational potential.  For us, a digital twin in not a single entity, it is a path from the basic geometric model to a fully autonomous facility. To put the digital twin into the context of the “big picture” digital roadmap, consider the digital twin of an asset as simply a single star in a constellation of stars. The full, connected constellation makes up the digital ecosystem of the enterprise.  So, you see the digital horizon really does expand as you progress along the digital maturity roadmap.

Future outlook

Achieving fully autonomous operations is still a futuristic ambition, but with current industry challenges, the drive is greater than ever to embrace digitalization and reap the benefits in the long-term. The potential for robotics to replace manual operations in the field is highly appealing to businesses. Imagine a robot that could weld any pipe material or diameter, in any location or position. The ability to use remotely controlled robots to do other kinds of basic maintenance activities, like filter changes, could also be a game changer.  If these types of manual activities could be enabled through remote operations, then we really are on the path to a new future.

On a bigger scale, even before COVID-19, the industry had started to note the concept of the asset data lifecycle – where design and construction data merges seamlessly into operations.  If you look at the major engineering design platforms, you can see that they are building their entire product platforms around data that moves with the physical asset from cradle to grave.  This concept is already changing the way Consultants, Contractors and Operators relate to each other – driving partnerships in data and breaking down hard handover barriers.  In the future we can see a potential scenario where operators own and host their own design platforms, where contractors and consultants are invited to collaborate in that shared space with the operator to design an asset. This could drive a new way of doing business by creating a true step change in the market for engineering services.

There is a great understanding of the potential for digital technology amongst our clients and a drive to do more. As an engineering services company with digital expertise, we are transforming our own operations and working with our clients to design and deliver similar programs in their organizations.  We work with each client to establish their own roadmap toward digitalization in accordance with their business needs. The COVID-19 crisis has done much to crystallize the need within the O&G sector for a march toward zero manning and autonomous operations.  Industry players who manage to accelerate their digitalization journey will be best placed to navigate current issues, adapt to future challenges and maintain sustainable growth along the way.

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Oil & Gas Middle East - September 2020

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