The brave new world of digital in oil and gas

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The brave new world of digital in oil and gas

We’re all in a brave new world of digital. Banks are converting us into our own bankers by putting banking apps on smart phones and tablets, airlines are turning us into check in counters, our phones are turning into our wallets and our doctors, our cars are becoming mobile hot spots, we can log in virtually anywhere and anytime on any number of devices. Consumer digital is impacting IT departments everywhere and in every field, from banking, retail, transportation, and the public sector.


The oil and gas industry is not immune to these trends. After all, industry runs on digital information. Oil and gas company employees, service providers and contractors don’t want to be exposed to the commodities because they’re dangerous. So the industry runs on the information it has about the commodities. It already has been “industrially digitised” through what the industry calls Operational Technology (OT), or the myriad of sensors on assets that provide operations teams with process information about operations.


Up to now, IT and OT have had a peaceful (and ambivalent) coexistence. IT has been the domain of the Chief Information Officer, who generally focused on the mid and back office (oil and trading, finance, HR, supply chain). OT is the domain of the VP Operations, and focuses on the front office (production, real time, equipment monitoring, control rooms). But consumer digital is intruding into both IT and OT and pushing all three into a new and positive embrace. Call it digital oil and gas.


Consumer Digital? Not Welcome in oil and gas Land


I see 4 big barriers (and there’s probably many more) that have long prevented consumer digital devices from deployment into the demanding world of oil and gas.


  • Radio interference. Oil and gas infrastructure (compression stations, plants, refineries) can generate its own radio wave interference because of the concentration of steel and equipment. Manufacturers of inexpensive consumer digital don’t have to deal with this issue for regular consumers.


  • Vapours and sparking. Hydrocarbon vapours can ignite under the right circumstances – a sufficient concentration of gas, a supply of oxygen, an ignition source. Consumer digital devices can spark. Since vapours need extra protection, the simplest solution is to prohibit devices that can spark from installations where vapors may be present.


  • Network ubiquity. In some parts of rural Alberta, the oil and gas fields are remote and lack access to telecoms networks. Patchy networks means interrupted access to systems and data. Industrial companies cannot be dependent on networks that operate at lower levels of reliability and availability.


  • Energy security. Energy infrastructure is a key part of national security. There are examples where malicious computer viruses have invaded equipment controllers and systems and have wreaked havoc on industrial processes. Hooking up consumer digital to OT might open up a pathway for viral infection.


Today, virtually all mobile phones and tablets are banned from oil and gas sites. Frankly, I don’t see consumer digital devices ever meeting the requirements of industrial application.


But digital is much more than smart phones and tablets.


Swiss Army Meets Chainsaw


Consumer digital is like the Swiss Army knife. It’s not a perfect device, but quite handy. Consumer digital is cheap and feature rich. If we lose a little knife, no biggie. In consumer digital we value feature rich, inexpensive smart phones and tablets. We like our apps, and are tolerant when they stop working for no reason. We accept that mobile phones will drop a call. We live with slow response time on the internet. We don’t like that our private information gets hacked, but it doesn’t stop us from using web services. We want to use our handy digital devices at work and at home. We accept a certain level of inconvenience because the benefits outweigh the costs. And we really value the creativity and speed of innovation of internet developers.


But you need a chainsaw, not a Swiss Army knife, to cope with the industrial grade challenges in the demanding world of oil and gas processing. IT and OT need to be highly resilient, running even when the power is out. Response time needs to be pretty much instant in case operators need to intervene with equipment. Cheap, flexible, user controlled have to give way to safe, stable, simple and reliable. Iconic industrial disasters (Macondo, Chernobyl, Fukushima) compel engineers to aim for the highest standards of robustness, resilience and reliability.


So how does consumer digital impact IT and OT? It begins with the fact that IT and OT are occasionally under some pressure to integrate anyway.


What is driving convergence?


The debate about IT and OT coming together usually gets a fresh hearing during times of cost focus, such as the situation in the global oil and gas sector. Today, the old argument that IT and OT are more similar than different is getting `new attention.


  • The chips in industrial equipment are often the same chips in old PCs. It’s surprising how that workhorse, the Intel 8086 chip that originally powered the IBM PC, the original consumer-level computer, is also the chip in many industrial OT devices today.


  • A variant of the ethernet standard that underpins our use of the internet is also used in many control rooms to network together industrial equipment. Therefore, the smart people that keep IT and OT networks running may well have related network technical skills.


  • The control rooms where IT and OT computer equipment are housed look very similar – highly protected, redundant power and network cabling, raised floors, fire protection. IT might not need the high levels of continuous operations required in OT, but that doesn’t mean the equipment is any less sensitive. In fact, the biggest control rooms in the world now belong to the cloud computing specialists at Amazon and Google, and when they go down, it’s global news.


  • The data generated by OT is often fed into IT. Device readers (OT) that record how much oil and gas has been processed turns into financial revenues and costs (IT). Vehicles with real-time accelerometers (OT) record safety incidents which turn into supplier performance records (IT). Emission data (OT) recorded in a plant becomes part of environmental reporting (IT).


  • Process triggers for IT are initiated in OT. An operator may note a device warning on an OT screen and may want to use an IT system to dispatch a maintenance technician to inspect the device.


Now, consumer digital and the available benefits in cost reduction and productivity gains are giving fresh impetus to this discussion.


IT, OT? Meet Consumer Digital


The opportunity to somehow hook IT and OT together to reduce costs and improve productivity in Alberta’s high cost environment, enabled by consumer digital, is creating many more points of interconnection.


  • In construction and field surveys, workers can use mobile phone cameras to record visual records with GPS data and connect that data to as-built engineering diagrams for future maintenance needs. Quite handy for pipeline work.


  • Maintenance technicians, equipped with a smart phone, can auto-retrieve asset data based on their GPS coordinates. The GPS data becomes the search key to pull up those records. Workers don’t need to anticipate what information they’ll need when they head out – that data will be pulled and presented.


  • And those maintenance technicians receive work instructions on their phones, and send notice back to the OT operator via smartphone app that the equipment is ready to be put back into service. Big savings in windshield time and shorter out of service times.


  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs) can be digitisedand delivered directly to operations, maintenance and contractors, assembled on the fly from latest information. Oil companies report major savings in this area.


  • Field data, such as equipment condition, incidents, and service records can be captured directly in the field, using consumer tools, but based on OT equipment records, and digitally posted. Benefits here accrue to maintenance and finance.


  • Cameras will pull video feeds from a field worker to control room-based senior engineers who would be able to help diagnose field issues based on live OT data in the control room.


  • Collaborative problem solving helps oil companies maintain production levels and cash flows.


  • Through the rapidly advancing world of big data and analytics, operators can take plant data and move beyond the simple condition-based analysis provided by original equipment manufacturers to predictive analytics, which will reduce out of service costs.


  • Plant operations can feed data on actual volumes to product trading who can then arrange to sell excess product or purchase feedstock. This will help optimise the complete value chain.


Achieving Digital Oil and Gas


The oil and gas industry can’t stop its workers from buying smart phones, nor can it halt the development of the internet. Might as well get on board and figure out how to harness this trend. I would:


  • develop a joint IT/OT strategy for harnessing the use of consumer digital. It’s here to stay.


  • find a few points of high impact and experiment. Look in maintenance where there are both costs at play as well as benefits from revenues. Aim for light integration to start.


  • take steps towards integrating IT and OT – harmonise processes in control rooms, for example. Try some employee swaps to build a little rapport. Conduct a joint study tour to some global leaders for inspiration.


  • trial some inexpensive automation apps with APIs (e.g. Tasker) which can reduce the cost of integration of consumer mobile devices with industrial equipment.


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