14 Sep In Conversation with Brendan Boyle, CEO of Vintri
Recently I interviewed Brendan Boyle, the CEO of Vintri Technologies, on the importance of data quality and data integrity in this digital era, a future where data helps with social license and saves money.
Geoffrey: I first encountered Vintri two or three years ago at a working session in Calgary on data issues. It was related to whether blockchain technologies could offer some tracing solutions to the industry. Vintri was at the meeting, and I became quite intrigued at what Vintri was up to. I would really like to concentrate today on the questions and topics that I know Vintri specializes in, which includes data quality, data integrity, and efficiencies around data, specifically for the oil and gas industry.
Let’s begin with a bit of your personal background.
Brendan: I co-founded Vintri eight years ago and have been CEO for two years. I am a mechanical engineer by trade, but I really got into the tech world through Vintri, when we started up the company. It’s been a really great experience, seeing how we can help evolve the industry with technology.
Geoffrey: What segments of the industry does Vintri concentrate on?
Brendan: Vintri is a data preparation organization with a focus on data quality and accessibility in asset-centric situations. Our primary market today is the midstream sector, but we are branching into the upstream and downstream parts of the industry as well. Generally, we thrive anywhere that is asset-centric or asset heavy. So, if you’ve got pipes, valves, flanges, or fittings, anything in that kind of capacity, that’s our world.
Geoffrey: The data that the industry maintains about its assets is some of its most critical data resource, because the accuracy of that data tends to have a significant cost driver effect. Inaccurate information about pipes and flanges trigger all kinds of potential for rework, excess mobility costs of sending engineers out to the field for doing needless inspections, inability to plan correctly for turnarounds, among other challenges. Is that the kind of thing we’re talking about here as the underlying driver for why Vintri concentrates on this particular pain area?
Brendan: The history of records and data in the industry, up until just recently, was file boxes—data that’s tucked away in paper or digital paper, and generally not verified in any way shape or form. A record may get produced, put in a file box, stored away and not retrieved until it’s needed many years down the road. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been much review or what we call the QA/QC (Quality assurance/Quality control) applied to the data. This is where we come in, bringing accuracy to the information, making it something that you can trust. That’s what Vintri does. We also add accessibility, taking it from being something that might have been buried in file boxes somewhere to right at your fingertips, so that you can have access to information to make better decisions and plan for upcoming eventualities.
Geoffrey: Why is it that in oil and gas, data is not viewed in the same way that the pharmaceutical industry uses its data? Pharma uses information as a critical resource, a critical asset. Oil and gas tends not to view data in the same manner. Do you any idea as to why that is?
Brendan: I think within oil and gas, the golden data for the longest time was in production, and information about throughput and flows. This data is absolutely imperative to the business and operations, but I think the focus now is shifting a little bit to bring in data about the assets and the materials which comprise your pipeline and your facility. Everyone wants to start being a little bit smarter, a little bit more efficient with how they’re using those assets. You want to be able to have that really sound baseline of information about what you have about your assets, not just what’s flowing through your assets. You want to get into predictive analytics. You want to get the smarts so you can be more efficient. You want to dig smarter when you’re doing your integrity management program. All these different operations require a sound data foundation, and that’s what we’re helping provide the industry.
Geoffrey: This all starts in the construction side, though, because it’s at that stage where physical material, what’s actually purchased, not what was ordered, is delivered to site, and becomes truth. Surely the discussion is not so much about how operations and maintenance are reliant on the data, but back to the construction cycle where the data originates.
Brendan: You can even push it a step further. It’s in your supply chain even before your engineering and procurement phases. Bringing data to the foreground of what you’re doing will help manage order fulfillment issues, while having that digital accessibility to help with project management metrics through manufacturing and construction. Traceability was one of the founding principles of why we got into this – being able to look at a pipe, a valve, a flange, and know that you have the information about it from all its different sources, right back to the pipe mill or steel mill, is very powerful. Fundamentally, the issue that we’re trying to address starts when the assets are being created, and then we follow them through each stage of the supply chain to make sure that the data remains both trustworthy and accessible.
Geoffrey: I’m reminded of a funny story. An engineer once told me about a Fort McMurray construction project involving pipe. He was very pleased that project was delivered with only $60 million of leftover pipe. The leftover pipe was in the wrong place. The company paid to move it all the way up to Fort MacMurray, and now it’s basically scrap metal. This has to be a significant hurdle or a challenge for the industry as a whole, no?
Brendan: We run into that quite a bit because the industry does have standards in place for excess ordering, particularly when they’re long lead time items. What we want to make sure is that by virtue of implementing these good data practices and having accessible information about the excess material that you ordered, you’re now able to repurpose that on your next project, reducing the amount of material you need to order for your next job. We’ve been successful in that regard with a few of our clients. Also, you can use this data for integrity programs, and have that information so even 5-10 years down the road, when you may have to cut out a section of pipe, you’ve got 20 sticks of pipe still available. And you’ve got their birth certificate, their characteristics, and you can easily match it up with what needs to go into the system, as opposed to potentially having to write off that material and buy new. We’re able to really find that additional value for our customers.
Geoffrey: The industry is still deploying lessons about the Macondo well disaster in the US, and knowing what physical assets were installed where. Similarly, the pipeline sector has experienced various pipeline leaks over the years ,and the pressure is on the industry to be able to clearly articulate answers to various questions: what is the provenance of that pipe that was underground? Where did it come from? Which mill made it? Who welded it? Who inspected it? Are you finding that social license is now a critical driver to why the industry is becoming awake to the power of data integrity?
Brendan: It’s become a huge part of the industry and something that everybody’s striving towards. Not just for the benefits by saving time and money through construction, and making information available to your operating groups such that they can make better decisions down the road, but fundamentally some of the incidents that took place have driven more regulation within the industry as well. Those regulations are directly tied to that concept of the social license. We have to prove to the public that we are building safe infrastructure while being good at operating it responsibly. Having trustworthy and accessible data is a key step in proving that the industry is taking social license seriously and driving towards safer, more reliable energy infrastructure.
Geoffrey: Many years ago, it felt like an airplane was falling out of the sky every other week. The aerospace industry figured out that they needed to up their asset integrity game significantly. Today, airplane disasters are quite rare. And yet, the numbers of aircraft in the air and flights per day have actually gone up. Similarly, you can see this in the installed base of equipment in oil and gas. We’re adding more and more equipment and assets, and the incident rate seems to be going down. Am I right about that?
Brendan: Oh, I’d say so. The aircraft industry, as well as other industries, are seeing similar effects. Absolutely – the industry has taken great steps towards risk prevention and response through better material, better standards, and better overall practices. But we can’t stop the momentum on this; as we must continue to get better to preserve that social license. Leveraging data to become even more predictive and proactive is the next step.
Geoffrey: The nuclear industry has also improved. The tolerance for nuclear mishap is zero. That industry is the gold standard when it comes to insight over its assets and spares.
Brendan: We look to those industries for inspiration, in fact. We don’t feel that we necessarily need to reinvent the wheel, because some industries have done a great job of data management and traceability. Those examples have helped us shape our concept. If you look at the automobile industry, companies sometimes have to recall vehicles, but they’re scattered all around the world. That’s no different really than pipes or valves or flanges that may have been installed anywhere in a network. This is not about blaming people for problematic assets. It’s just giving the ability to be able to trace where those assets may be, where the risks may exist, and give you better information to make decisions if an incident were to occur, how quickly can you respond, and understand if there may be similar types of issues in other parts of the network.
Geoffrey: You mentioned tracing. We’re all now very familiar with pandemic tracing. But what is track and trace when it comes to the world of pipes and flanges and fittings?
Brendan: We really like to differentiate between track and trace. Tracking is very important. The closest comparison I could make is when you order something from Amazon. You can see the tracking of your packages until they show up at your door. That’s tracking, and it’s extremely powerful, from a logistics standpoint within the energy industry. What we really focus on is the concept of traceability. Traceability is based on the DNA of an asset, all the data about its features, characteristics, and lifetime. What’s the steel chemical composition? What were the various quality tests applied to it? Who welded the pipes together? All that information combined gives you traceability.
Geoffrey: A pipeline section is about 40 feet so that it fits on a flatbed trailer, similar to a shipping container. If I’m putting in a pipeline that is a thousand kilometers, that’s a lot of pipe segments. I have to keep track of where each one is.
Brendan: We’ve worked on projects of all shapes and sizes. The interesting thing is that the data is valuable on all of them. We can do a mega project with 50,000 joints of pipe. It’s extremely important to have good data and have it available. But even then, on a small integrity replacement, you’re replacing three joints of pipe that are 40 feet long. Having that information and bringing those good standards of data to everything that you do helps you be consistent across your entire organization.
Geoffrey: Let’s turn to the kind of value equation that companies have gained through a better stewardship of their data assets. Can you share some anecdotes of companies who have embraced data quality standards and solutions like Vintri to elevate their game? And what did they gain by doing that?
Brendan: There are a couple of good examples that we can share. When you’re working on a major pipeline project, the standard practice was to take a lengthy period of time to turn the project over to operations through the commissioning process. Then all the information and data and records that were created would be manually processed after the fact, which takes an enormous amount of time. In the context of a medium to large pipeline, we were able to help turn that project over two months faster. Two months in the oil and gas industry can be quite substantial if you’re able to run product through quicker.
Another example that we’ve seen is the repurposing of material. We had customers who were going to scrap materials and we said, “let’s take a look at the information and the data.” We worked with them on building up the data backbone of those assets, and they were able to use the material on another project. In terms of benefits, those things pay for themselves quite quickly. Pipes are not cheap, and if you’re able to save even 2,3,4, or five sticks of pipe, you get a lot of value. Finally, we’ve identified that a huge chunk of value can be attributed to having accessible and trustworthy data through any sort of asset sale or disposition. Expediting the due diligence process and proving to the purchaser that you have sound information for your asset help ensure you are getting maximum value from the transaction.
Geoffrey: It is a real challenge for the industry, reusing surplus equipment. In fact, there are businesses now that exist solely for the purposes of finding markets for surplus equipment for oil and gas. And the biggest issue they have in repurposing that material is producing the original purchase documentation, the original specifications and inspection of those assets, any accompanying warranties that came along with that equipment, and the history of care that the particular assets have gone through. If you have that data, you can reuse that asset much more easily than if you don’t have the data, because no one wants to take the risk of using assets which feature any kind of uncertainty.
Turning assets over early is lucrative. The Exxon LNG facility in Papa New Guinea entered into production six months early. The economic impact was extraordinary, because you borrow money to build the asset, and you schedule your repayment based on the time when you start receiving revenue. If you pull the revenue forward in time, you basically have extra months of free cash flow, which you do not have to use to service the debt. The economic effect can be huge, especially if the asset gets big enough, as in the case of this LNG asset. They shipped an extra 60-70 cargoes of LNG, each cargo being $25 million.
Brendan: Those are staggering numbers. It’s huge. You’re able to find these returns, let’s call it on the capital side, through construction, manufacturing, and operations. But compliance can be a huge factor as well. I can remember my pipelining days prior to Vintri. We were regularly looking for information on assets from various different sources and trying to cobble it together. It was time consuming. Being able to have that information more readily available helps our operations team, but it can also help with regulatory information requests, which inevitably will come up.
Geoffrey: Another subtle upside to doing this properly in the construction cycle is that in the event that you do need to call on those data assets, you’ve established best practices and best in class technology to maintain the data. In the case of the BP Macondo disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the litigants sought to prove that the underlying process to manage the data was flawed, and by extension the data was unreliable. Better data management practices mean the litigators have much of a tougher time. They have to actually prove the data is incorrect. There’s a real risk mitigation element to better data processes, not just all bringing the production faster in time.
Brendan: One of the pillars of who we are and what we do is that we preserve the data from each of the sources. We have ways to present it to our customers so that they can consume it in a standardized format, but we always preserve that initial record of the data source establishing complete traceability. In addition to that, through our data QA/QC practices, we’re able to work iteratively with the supply chain to flag and identify data and traceability issues as they are happening. Not only does this help ensure the data is trustworthy, but we’ve also found that a lot of the suppliers within the industry are actually able to implement process improvement and best practices by virtue of cleaning up their data practices. There are obvious benefits for the asset owner, the pipeline operators, the facility operators, but we firmly believe that this is really going to help the industry as a whole, especially in the supply chain.
Geoffrey: You’ve highlighted the distinction for organizations that are down the pathway of digital transformation and enabling digital change—the difference between doing digital and being digital. Doing digital means you put in these digital solutions to solve a specific problem; being digital means you’ve learned from that process, you take on board those lessons learned, and you’re now adapting those insights throughout the rest of your organization to try to change other business processes that weren’t in your original scope. Some companies have clearly picked up on the power of quality information assets, and are using that as the springboard to change their own DNA. Let’s turn to some of the longer-term opportunities that are here. You’ve been working in this arena for the better part of a career. What do you see as the opportunities in the energy industry for improving its data assets?
Brendan: I have to be careful because I get almost too excited about the potential around it, but you look at the different tools and solutions that are that are coming to light, great 3D visualization technology, LIDAR scanning technology, really powerful machine learning technologies, all of this ties back to that concept of becoming more proactive and preventative as an industry. How can we continue to prove to the public that we are much further ahead and doing an incredible job at building safe and reliable infrastructure? This is the future, a digital operations concept where we can not only help with social license, but use these solutions and combinations of data and technology to save us money. Eventually, there will be collaboration across the industry as to how incidents can be prevented. Those are what I see coming for the industry in the not too distant future and they will definitely need to rely on a trustworthy foundational asset data set to achieve this
Geoffrey: As the underlying data gets more reliable, then the opportunity to bring other digital tools to bear goes up. Consider, for example, Tesla’s cars. The first iteration of vehicles had cameras that are reading and interpreting the real world around them, but over time the vehicles begin to not only just take the data in and process it, but begin to control the car’s actions. This is what moves us along to self driving vehicles. It’s taken a decade to get there, but high-quality data is what yields that power. You can begin to see that data standards are a critical stepping stone to a far more powerful and safer future for everyone.
What advice you might have for either operators, or entrepreneurs, or both, that are staring at their data assets and scheming on what they should be doing next? What advice would you share?
Brendan: I’ll touch on operators because we’ve been at this for eight or so years now. One of the big mistakes that gets made in digital transformations is that everybody tries to go for it all at once. They try to boil the ocean. That’s a spectacularly difficult task. We’ve had some great lessons and feedback from our customers, and the effective solution is to find those bite sized chunks that you can successfully achieve, because they create the momentum and enable you to start taking bigger and bigger steps. We started by just doing line pipe, and line pipe exclusively. We solved the problems in line pipe for our customers and then we progressed then into valves and valve assemblies. Then we progressed beyond that into facilities and turbo machinery. We were able to build that momentum, and that really helps facilitate the change that you want. To summarize that, take bite sized chunks for digital transformation.
Geoffrey: And in your case, the bite was line pipe. Which, by the way, there’s a million miles of line pipe in North America.
Brendan: Yeah, exactly. Small bite, but big impact!
Geoffrey: But at the time, no one else was doing it, so therefore it was open season, really. Brendan, it has been terrific to hear your story and the story of Vintri, the story of how the industry is embracing, digital management tools and technologies and techniques to improve its performance. Thank you for your time today.
Brendan: Thank you very much for having me.
Check out my book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
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