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IIoT in oil and gas? Users make gains—carefully

Jim Montague

Connecting oil and gas wells and their supporting sites and equipment with Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies can increase production, reduce downtime, improve safety and reduce emissions. It provides these advantages by enabling remote monitoring, automated workflows, machine learning, augmented reality and other advanced technologies. Because of these potential benefits, many users are investigating digitalized devices and software, and trying them in non-critical sections of their applications and facilities.

This is where IIoT and its fans meet reality—and lose momentum.

Legacy assets, connectivity issues, worker attrition, cybersecurity, possible governmental concerns and other pesky snags contribute to slowing IIoT and digitalization down, according to the five panelists in the Upstream Oil and Gas Forum at the 2019 Emerson Global Users Exchange in Nashville, Tennessee. However, they reported that careful, common-sense approaches can solve many of these issues, and deliver on many of the promises of the IIoT and digitalization.

The good news

"We had 300 wells we couldn't monitor remotely before, so when there was a drop in production, we had to send someone out in a helicopter. Last year, it took 37 helicopter trips and two weeks worth of time to check those wells, and find and resolve problems—and we lost 2,000 barrels of oil," said Todd Anslinger, control systems engineer, IIoT Center of Excellence, Chevron. "Since we added Emerson transmitters and Digi gateways that transfer 4-20 mA signals to the cloud via LTE cellular wireless networking, we can monitor when they go below a certain output pressure, for example, and determine if they really need a visit or not. We estimate we can save about $25,000 per event."

Tim White, asset management director for offshore drilling contractor Valaris plc, added that, "When events happen offshore, managers onshore want to know what's happening. However, it can be risky to have calls coming in every hour, so we've been trying to correlate our data to better inform our rig managers, so they don't have to call as much. Plus, more readily available data helps us look like rock stars to our VPs."

Likewise, natural gas producer EQT Corp. recently implemented IBM Maximo asset management software to help its supervisors and managers by showing production data on their PCs and smart phones, according to Gary Baxter, former production operations director, EQT. "This solution got us involved with IIoT, but we soon found that we needed 78 database revisions," said Baxter. "We couldn't do all of them, so we had to revise, and implement Emerson's ROC800 remote operations controller, which let us do more analytics."

Similar to his fellow panelists, Jim Sage, IT principal for emerging technology, Occidental Petroleum (OXY), reported, "We implemented IoT starting last year, and began by proving its viability and value, researching available IoT platforms, determining device connections, and validating how we'd create software containers and analytics. We also asked our business side what kind of real-time drilling and gas lift data they'd need. We learned it's important to determine the IoT-readiness of the larger organization, so over the last year and a half, we got ready with a cloud-computing that we could plug our IoT solution into. Now, we can connect edge-computing devices to help control shutdown devices."

Is ROI there yet?

Because funding for innovations is often scarce, the oil and gas panelists reported that IIoT and associated new technologies must demonstrate their value quickly to gain acceptance.

"We look to see financial benefits within one year because if it's two or three years, then it won't get funded because everyone assumes the technology is going to change anyway," said Anslinger. "Behavior changes with familiarity and training, so it's crucial to show people what the IIoT can do for them, what dollars and cents they can gain, and that it's cost-effective to implement."

Beyond fast payback, White reported IIoT must also show it can ease user workloads. "The first response to many networking projects is 'Big Brother is watching' and that we're spying on them. So, we try to show the benefits of IIoT to the guys on the front lines and how it can make their jobs easier. For example, IIoT can automate many of the tasks they don't like, such as collecting some scheduled readings, which helps them start to like IIoT and support it."

Baxter added, "It also helps to keep an IIoT solution in front of everyone and train them. They also appreciate it more if the solution comes from other field and operations users, rather than some ivory tower in Houston."

Sage explained that any effort to get potential users acclimated to the IIoT can be helpful because disruptive changes have been coming so fast. "Most changes in process control and automation have been incremental, but what's happening now is a reallocation of people to learn the new skills needed as we transition from previous methods to those based on the IIoT. And, once we connect to our edge devices, the benefits of their data will start to come in."        

More timely data, more gains

One of the main advantages of the IIoT and digitalization in general is that users can not only collect more signals and data, but they get them much more often. "With our wireless devices, we can check process or equipment status every hour," said Chevron's Anslinger. "For instance, when we inject CO2 and water into wells, we can see the downhole pressure more frequently, and make better decisions."

White reported that Valaris will use its increased data volume and speed to improve maintenance, as well as optimize operations. "One of our big goals is condition-based maintenance, and we know the IIoT will help accomplish it, as well as reduce staff and deploy 'tiger teams' that can manage multiple rigs," explained White.

OXY's Sage added that some job descriptions have to change to allow many IIoT-related benefits to happen. "Field technicians and IT used to work in very different areas, and used to be subject to many of the information technology (IT) vs. operations technology (OT) conflicts and assertions that 'this is mine,' " said Sage. "However, digital transformation is merging these areas, and at the same time, expanding many data science departments that are needed to move digital transformation forward. Our own data science group has grown astronomically."

Jorge Tavaras, manager at Petrobras, added that, "Our OT and IT personnel and tasks have become very mixed in recent years. Sometimes we find ourselves doing each other's jobs, and sometimes we no longer know if we're in the IT or OT groups."

Simpler, faster, secure communications

Anslinger reported that another virtue of the IIoT is it allows people and their devices to communicate more quickly and get more done. "When we used to add a non-control instrument to a process, we'd typically have to submit a management of change request (MOC), and it could take 30 days to run conduit to the DCS, add a PLC if needed, and complete about eight total steps to reach the cloud and get data to it," said Anslinger. "Now, if we're just adding an IIoT-based analytics device, we can get it done by lunchtime."  

Sage added that OXY requires its IIoT devices to be LTE wireless/cellular, which lets his staff tell their field colleagues that they're taking devices off the operations network and freeing capacity. To maintain cybersecurity, he explained that OXY usually has many field and business firewalls, and avoids opening IoT connections to field devices, but also extends its LTE devices from a DMZ and automated private network (APN) to the cloud.

Recipe for success

Because about 70% of IIoT projects reportedly fail, the panelists agreed there are several primary elements needed for digital transformation and IIoT success.

"Oil and gas users are good at developing and running pilot projects, but not as good at scaling them up," said Chevron's Anslinger. "This is where C-suite approval and support is really crucial, and where useful innovations like the IIoT can get the traction they need. However, IIoT projects are also likely to fail if they require a lot of added infrastructure work. If an ultra-wideband device is installed under other equipment, and needs conduit and fiber run to it, then it's tough for users to swallow if they're only going to get, for example, just 10 centimeters of added accuracy."

Sage added: "Many legacy devices were installed in the field and forgotten. What's needed now is more consciously managing operating systems and their field devices. The IIoT is mainly just adding an ARM microprocessor, but they need updates and a system to manage them, which we're exploring.”

Beyond internal support, Sage and Anslinger added it's vital to have knowledgeable partners and vendors for IIoT and digital transformation projects.

"A year and a half ago, we still had vendors that were proposing closed systems and networks, and they're either no longer in business or trying to adopt open-system standards," said Sage. "There are also vendors that propose doing IIoT as an open service, but we're also not going to put an unknown black box or software in our processes. Of the many startups trying to do IIoT, most don’t understand how to interact with existing plant systems."

Anslinger added that, "Suppliers can help users with high-level IIoT strategies, evaluating which assets could benefit from the IIoT, and what device management is needed."