Efficiency on a daily basis

Gregory Hale

October 6, 2014

Technology is there for companies to use and take advantage of, but is it being used as much as it could be to gain insight into operations. Gregory Hale takes a look.

With the digital oilfield, experts at a remote monitoring center can analyze data, put it into context and assist the engineers and operators on the platform. Photo from ABB.  

It wasn’t too long ago when the operators of a floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel off the coast of Angola needed to become more efficient and integrate video surveillance into its process control system.

The reason was simple, as video is critical for safety control and monitoring in such a hazardous area, operators thought everything should be available over the control system.

“By working with the control and instrumentation systems provider to implement the critical process control system, we were able to add in a video encoder and the system was able to migrate from analog CCTV to IP networks,” says Thomas Nuth, at US-based global vertical manager at networking provider, Moxa Inc. That meant the process control systems and IP video systems could seamlessly integrate to achieve alarm-to-video monitoring. With this improvement to alarm handling, users could search for event images in a minimum of time, Nuth said.

When it comes to producing on the platform, it’s all about efficiency: Achieving consistent daily production while maximizing process capabilities.

Industry consultant McKinsey & Company agrees. “The rapid progress of technology such as big data and analytics, sensors, and control systems offers oil and gas companies the chance to automate high-cost, dangerous, or error-prone tasks,” the company said in an article this Spring.

“Most oil and gas operators are starting to capture these opportunities and would do well to accelerate their efforts,” the firm continued. “Companies that successfully employ automation can significantly improve their bottom line. While automation offers many potential benefits in the upstream value chain of exploration, development, and production, some of the biggest opportunities are in production operations, such as reducing unplanned downtime. Given the oil and gas industry’s substantial increases in upstream capital investment, optimizing production efficiency is essential. Automation creates several opportunities to that end: Maximizing asset and well integrity, increasing field recovery, and improving oil throughput.”

“With the substantial production volumes of offshore production platforms, even small improvements in production efficiency will have meaningful financial impact, as additional throughput translates directly into more revenue,” the company said.

Making the connection

With operators facing more challenges in subsea production as they get into deeper water, they will need higher levels of automaton as they run into connecting with disparate systems.

“It is getting more complex,” said John Oyen, business development manager for ABB’s North America Oil, Gas & Petrochemical business unit. “It is a simple process you are controlling, the fluid flow from the well head, to the separations, and what goes on at a platform, in theory, it is relatively simple, but complex because of the volume, because of the pressures, because of the temperatures, because of where it is where you are operating.”

Add in working with different systems that must talk to one another and you need a system that can bring all the data together for engineers and operators to use for their purposes.

“You may have a programmable logic controller (PLC) running your process control, you are going to have lots of little skids that have some modular areas that will have some form of a PLC,” Oyen said. “The same thing goes from the electric side. With your power generation, your generator controls could be a GE, or they could be Siemens or Wartsila or a GE turbine, then you need the repository for all the data related to how that platform is operating from the equipment for process control. Also, you need to know the flows and how well your separators are running and your tank level. As we go forward, as the capabilities become greater and greater so do the HSE requirements and compliance which used to be voluntary now becomes mandatory.”

Levels add up

 In subsea production, as operators get into deeper water, they will need higher levels of automaton to achieve greater efficiency. Photo from ABB.

But the layers of the levels of efficiency continue to mount as production ramps up. To keep the production flowing, there are reservoir management systems for the subsea wellheads the production side has to interface with via the control system.

So whether the control system is a Rockwell, Emerson, Honeywell, Siemens, Yokogawa, GE or ABB, the user also will contend with data from systems by Schlumberger or Halliburton on what is going on from below the wellhead.

“That becomes key when you get into a well management system because you are having to look at how you have laid out those wells, how you have laid out your process equipment, how you are doing your well flow tests so you know where you are getting water breakthroughs, all your ratios between gas, oil and sediment and which well is doing what,” Oyen says. “Pretty much you are getting an aggregate of your main separator, so you know how much gas you are producing, how much oil you are producing, how much sediment you are producing and how much water. It is a lot of guys working in concert with each other. It is a lot of data from a lot of different systems, so it is how do you pull that data in a meaningful form so the engineers can take action?”

Technology and Collaboration

Technology is there for companies to use and take advantage of, but the big question remains as to whether they are using it to gain as much insight into their operation. There are the people doing data analytics to get the right information about the various processes and then report on it, but the next level up will be a collaboration from the platform to experts on land.

That could be where the digital oilfield comes into play. Data can come from the platform and go to a remote monitoring center onshore that could be working with half a dozen to a dozen assets, platforms, production areas in a region. They can have experts look at the data and put it into context and assist the engineers and operators on the platform to help them keep the platform up and running, avoiding any unplanned downtime as a result of a process upset.

“You have a lot of companies that have their wish list of what they want to occur,” Oyen said. “They are watching the companies and will take advantage of what feel comfortable with for the project they are developing. There are some companies that move along, some take more risks than others, and some that don’t want to take any risk at all. The costs to operate offshore are tremendous, the rewards are great, but the risks are great.”

People power

Technology shows great potential to advance capabilities offshore, but it always comes down to people and how quickly, or slowly, they incorporate these new skill sets.

“I am talking to one operator and they are doing a platform and you talk about a different way to do things about integrated process control, safety, electrical and telecoms and how that can streamline interface management and reduce risk. The guy said, ‘this is my last project before I retire, I don’t want to do anything different. I want to do it the way I have always done it.’ Hard to get past that one,” Oyen says. “It’s all about the personalities and who wants to learn or who wants to head into retirement.”

However, with newer people coming into the industry, they will see and use technology much differently. But, with more established companies, with the bigger players like ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, they have their own way of doing things and you will follow their guidelines, Oyen said. “But you have some of the smaller guys and they need to rely on their engineering partners to do the design and give them a platform that will meet some criteria,” he said. Since they don’t have the staff, and are not as big, they can look at new and different ways of doing things.

Whether big or small, thinking new and different may be a bit of a risk, but if the calculations are correct, the rewards will truly benefit the user. That is the case with the FPSO off the coast of Angola. In that case, the user was also able to build another video viewer into their distributed control system (DCS) workstations based on open platform communication, Nuth said. That allowed for greater levels of communications from different systems.

When the DCS receives an alarm notification, it sends an event trigger to the surveillance server, and the video surveillance system immediately retrieves video streams from the relevant unit and initiates recording and playback functions. At the DCS control center, a built-in viewer allows engineers to review event logs and corresponding video, which enhances alarm response and overall safety.

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