Oil and gas companies are playing catch-up with manufacturing. DNV GL concluded in its latest oil and gas services forecast to 2050 the industry will be heavily automated. Today, only the big oil and gas companies have automated drilling technology. This also includes the surveillance of rigs and fields, and operations such as measuring pressure and oil flow. In the near future, the whole industry will have fully automated oil rigs, oil and gas fields. It’s also possible every aspect of exploration and the production value chain will be automated. Automated systems through rugged mobile technologies will detect hazards, make repairs. Even daily operational decisions could be automated, leaving people to take strategic decisions.
The recent uptake of automation owes much to lower oil and gas prices. It is also due to the increasing competition from renewable energy and LNG. This necessitated industry-wide cost-cutting and higher efficiency drives.
Benefits of automation
Automation technology is proving an attractive cost-saving investment for the oil and gas industry. It is increasingly applied to processes and procedures in the exploration and production value chain. Automation while reducing errors can produce a continuous stream of valuable data. This is to help enhance corporate analysis and improve decision-making.
When combined with mobile technology, connected sensors, and data visualization, and applied to remote or difficult-to-access industry infrastructure, machinery, or equipment not only strengthens the company’s control systems, it also releases human labor from performing dangerous or risky tasks.
The increasing use of digitization, supported by the internet of things-enabled sensors across the entire production chain, is changing how firms operate, process data, and make decisions. Digital technologies enhance the availability and quality of data and improve communication This fosters cross-functional collaboration with teams despite being in different parts of the world.
In summary, automating many tasks has reduced costs, improved productivity, and workforce safety, while helping to reduce demand for skilled labor. Above all, technology combined with automation has helped keep projects coming in on time and within budget.
Examples of automation
- Highly costly, technical, and dangerous drilling operations are being transformed. Automating portions of the drilling process, such as pipe handling and pressure drilling, not only improves staff safety but also speeds up the overall drilling process. Drilling equipment furnished with sensors provides a continuous real-time flow of data and diagnostics to field service personnel, improving accuracy, uptime, and profit margins. In parallel, technology is optimizing the supply chain’s delivery of spare parts as well as better managing workforce deployment.
- Underwater, automated drones carrying a range of inspection devices and remotely controlled vehicles are being used to carry out inspections and diagnostics on sea bed infrastructure, transmitting data to a central command post where decisions are taken. This has the twin advantages of reducing the need for skilled divers, and inspections can take place without suspension of operations.
- Weather monitoring equipment is being used by some energy firms as part of an automated weather sensor net to detect weather conditions and give early warning of the need to take precautionary measures.
- The rate and flow of oil and gas extraction are increasingly being automated by the installation of smart sensors. By connecting to centralized monitoring software, which records and transmits readings on pressure, flow, and level of oil in the field to decision-makers wherever they are, and preventing the need for an on-site crew of specialists.
Because these recent tech innovations are essentially unfamiliar territory, oil and gas companies are looking towards Silicon Valley’s Apple, Google, Tesla, and Microsoft to fill new posts in automation, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and software development. In addition, oil companies are buying into start-ups to learn about technology, acquire human capital, or build a relationship with the owner of the technology. For example, Google’s AI and big data helped Repsol Global, a Spanish integrated oil company, by optimizing its Tarragona refinery. The project has the potential to add 30% to Repsol’s refined barrel margin, worth $20 million a year.
The adoption of new and unfamiliar tech means that the human resource departments of energy companies have also had to adapt their recruitment skills and in-house training programs. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that Energy Company’s corporate culture will need to change. This is to embrace and integrate a new set of professionals with the skills to understand and apply new tech to oil and gas.
Future of automation
Blockchain, a recent innovation, could bring huge benefits to up and downstream operations. From scheduling equipment maintenance to managing exploration acreage records, blockchain offers a single, unalterable record of transactions and documentation between numerous parties in the chain. Blockchain can also provide a secure and transparent record of downstream activities. This includes the exchange of products, secondary distribution delivery documentation, and demurrage and claims management. Mid-stream, blockchain could revolutionize documentation around risk management, contracting, and regulatory compliance. If successful in its application, blockchain could reduce back-office staff and bring substantial cost savings.
The prospect of totally automated rigs and field production awaits the development of both smarter sensors and devices in the field. It can also further improvements in communications between operations and control centers. Deeper penetration of automation will change the role of energy workers from one focused on finding problems to one on solving them. It will shift the workforce profile away from brawn and low skill to the brain, rewarding creativity and innovation and bringing on board a substantial suite of new tech jobs.