Automation can fulfill skills shortage remotely

Greg Hale

July 14, 2014

A radio surveillance system in Den Helder in the Netherlands monitors the prodution operations in the southern section of the North Sea. Photo from Wintershall.

It wasn’t long ago that Wintershall’s gas production platforms on the North Sea went through an optimization metamorphosis when the company opened a monitoring center for its offshore rigs at Den Helder in The Netherlands.

Wintershall’s center for remote con- trolled operations (RCO), a contemporary facility onshore, was able to monitor, via radio transmissions, whether the production platforms were operating correctly. The control center has at least two staffers working there around the clock, which not only saved on platform personnel, it also cut down on flights to the platforms and reduced maintenance and logistics costs.

The ability to monitor and control the platforms onshore allowed the gas producer to leverage automation technology to its advantage by reducing costs and increasing productivity in an age when there is a shortage of available workers.

And that is more important now than ever as Baby Boomers and the knowledge they derived over years of hands-on experience are getting ready to pull up stake and depart the industry.

But one of the great challenges facing industry thought leaders, executives and everyday worker bees is figuring out a way to capture that innate knowledge that is taking that final flight back to shore.

Automation is the one word answer that comes closest.

“Before people retire we have to capture their knowledge,” said Paul Bonner, with Honeywell Process Solutions’ oil and gas vertical, at their 2014 Honeywell User Group conference held in June. “That is a part of what automation does, it is able to capture that information. A good example is procedural operations. There is the guy that has 20 years of experience that knows how to start that unit up or shut it down or prepare it for maintenance. In systems now there is a thing called procedural operations where we can actually capture those steps, those best practices inside the automation, so it is not on a book on a shelf. It is in the system. So when a young guy comes along that doesn’t have the same skills, instead of having him try to interpret the book and figure out what to do, the system actually steps into it and tells

Training for the future

Instead of looking for a needle in the haystack and finding the person with the right experience and the perfect skill set, companies will be able to train younger workers and get them up to speed so they can handle the rigors of operations.

“We have to take young people and train them,” Bonner said. “The popu- lation is growing and we have to find people interested in working in engineer- ing and getting them trained with the right skill set. There is no shortage of people, it is just skilled people.”

The skills shortage numbers are stag- gering. As baby boomers hit retirement age at a rate of 10,000/day over the next 16 years, there is no doubt the oil and gas industry will suffer from the loss of experienced workers.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 54.8 million total job openings within this decade – with 62% of those openings related to Baby Boomers leaving the workforce and not having enough skilled people to fill them.

In the North Sea alone, there is a need for over 120,000 skilled personnel in the next 10 years to leverage all the projected investment in oil and gas.

“Like any other industry there is a big shortage of skilled resources to do the project engineering and to maintain the assets afterward,” Bonner said.

Automation and the Cloud

The idea of using Cloud technology is also handling some of the skill shortages.

“Cloud engineering has the ability to bring skilled resources from other loca- tions to work on projects. So I don’t have to say ‘I need 40 skilled engineers to go to Houston to work on a project.’ Whoever has the right skills to work on a project, can work on the project from their location so the talent pool is larger globally. The Cloud makes it a reality,” Bonner said.

The skills shortage is not the only rea- son for the boom in automation. The days of offshore production with rigs standing on the bottom over a single set of wells is long gone.

In the Gulf of Mexico, there are fewer rigs because more wells employ subsea completions. On top of that, automation will be able to handle operations thousands of feet below the surface.

In addition, the new technologies allow for the integration of systems and equipment on the platform, which only makes sense.

“A lot of SIL 2- (safety integrity level) and SIL 3-rated equipment on the platforms are integrated with the DCS (distributed control system),” Bonner said. “We also see a lot of integration of the equipment on the platform. Before, there were a lot of very separate systems which require separate people to maintain them. We are seeing a big push not to simplify things but integrate them.

“For example, with automation technology instead of having turbines and compressors needing compressor controls and anti-surge controls that need a separate black box to do that, we can actually do it inside the DCS. In the subsea where you used to have the sub- sea interface on the platform and then we would have a DCS connection and somebody else would look after that. We have eliminated that (whole pro- cess) where we can now talk directly to and control the subsea completions on the seafloor. Control it from the DCS. We can eliminate a lot of these third- party technologies and black boxes, which means you need less people to maintain them.”

Going deeper

Another aspect is with offshore going into deeper water at much higher costs and employing more subsea wells, more processing ends up conducted offshore.

“They are actually becoming much larger and more sophisticated operations, which requires more automation in order to manage them more effectively,” said Randy Miller, business director for gas production, processing, pipelines, transportation, LNG and GTL for Honeywell p>Process Solutions. “The capital investment is so high, they actually need more automation so there is a greater return on their investment.”

As a result, companies are beginning to deploy more common automation meth- ods that you would see in refining with programs like advanced process control, optimization, operations management, and maintenance management.

“You still have the constraint of having fewer personnel on the platform, compared to an onshore operation, so you need more automation to handle that sophistication,” Miller said. “You have gas processing in many cases where you are producing. I know in one case where there is a stream with a lot of carbon dioxide in the gas, and so they are doing separation using one of our purification processes to separate the CO2, purify it enough so it can release safely. I think automation is helping make these operations viable as they get so complex.”

The complexity is only going to ratchet up in the coming years and automation is the next sea change to boost production, productivity and profitability in the age of a skills shortage.

Gregory Hale is the Editor and Founder of Industrial Safety and Security Source ( and is the contributing Automation Editor at Offshore Engineer.