Technology Shapes the Next Phase of Oil and Gas Equipment

Advancements in exploration and production technologies have opened up opportunities for significant oil and gas production from vast regions of North America, but tapping into these domestic energy production opportunities will require safe, lean, and green operations. Large producers are playing a big role, as usual, but a growing number of smaller operators, taking advantage of technological advances, are emerging and playing a bigger part in this oil boom. These smaller operations need the same levels of engineering, automation, pollution controls and more, but at a different scale that calls for new methods of manufacturing and installation.

Expanded energy production in our own backyard has the added complication of providing a local focus from activist groups, regulators, and by extension the general public. This is sure to drive state and local regulatory policy in the coming years and decades. Much like the technology advancements that enable expanded domestic exploration and production from these newly accessible reserves, the technology to meet these new regulatory challenges must be developed and expanded.

Adding to the increasing pressure from regulatory agencies, market pressures for improved cost efficiencies will continue to drive operators to increase on-line performance, reduce equipment downtime, and expand throughput from existing facilities. At the same time, operators, mid-stream processors, and independent refiners are facing increasing costs to find and retain experienced talent, such as engineers, operators, and technicians. Engineers, designers, equipment manufacturers, and system integrators can meet these challenges by integrating technology into the otherwise traditional business model of the “Process Unit” supply chain.

Efficient Design:
For industry giants, the traditional approach to large scale production and process unit engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) will likely exist far into the future. Operating company engineers, large engineering and design teams from specialized firms, and multinational construction contractors will stay busy internationally and domestically on mega-projects for a diverse clientele of multinational corporations and State owned oil and gas exploration, production and refining operations.

Medium and small scale domestic production, treating and refining operations often face a significant economic “head wind” from this type of traditional approach to EPC project execution. Integrated firms capable of providing design-build services, and even Design-Build-Own-Operate-Maintain operations, have opportunities to expand into the domestic energy market in the coming years. The successful business model for these projects can be significantly different from the traditional, large scale EPC project approach.

To support the lean, efficient design-build and derivative project structures, engineers and operators will increasingly invest in broadly accepted Harmonized Design Standards and Standardized Process Unit Designs. Harmonized Standards from industry organizations like Process Industry Practices (PIP), an initiative of the Construction Industry Institute (CII), provide an opportunity for owners, operators, engineers, and construction firms to adopt a unified approach to design standards. A unified approach from all project stakeholders reduces the uncertainty and associated cost of review, evaluation, and compliance with Project Standards.

Standardized Process Unit Design: Standardization offers additional efficiencies for engineers, owners and operators. On the Engineering and Design front, the ability to capitalize on previously completed design work from successful projects allows integrated EPC firms and plant owners to spend their limited resources of capital, time and talent focusing on the 20 percent important factors required for successful implementation and not on the 80 percent tried and true repetitive details required for any project.

Owners and operators benefit from the Standardized Process Unit through commonality of operations, training, maintenance, and equipment interchangeability. More than a few Fortune 500 companies have successfully implemented this business model in other industries and the time has come to apply it within the energy industry. Contrary to a one size fits all mandate, this “Mass Customization” business model, combining lean design-build operations with standardized end-products, can successfully meet the unique demands of energy producers better, faster, cheaper.

Efficient Operation and Maintenance: Simplicity, reduced energy consumption, energy recovery and improved mean time between failures or maintenance required outages fundamentally drive any cost evaluation of process unit operations.

Design simplicity is a critical element of efficiently operating process units that supports operators and maintenance engineers and technicians. An experienced designer, thinking of operator and maintenance “ergonomics”, in the early planning stage of a project often is the difference between a safe and simple pump rebuild or heat exchanger tube-pull and an expensive multi-day or multi-week plant outage.

Operating simplicity and operator ergonomics are equally important to drive proactive operation and maintenance by reducing the clutter of control screens, clarifying alarm priorities and eliminating the distraction of nuisance alarms and data stream overload. Industry associations as well as major initiatives from operating companies will shape the design standards and implementation of future control systems to support these goals.

System Integrators and OEMs of traditional and proprietary processes have a tremendous opportunity to develop advanced systems that can greatly improve the apparent simplicity and efficiency of unit operations and the frequency of planned, proactive operations and preventative maintenance, versus reactive, unplanned plant outages. Significant advancements in the speed, memory capacity and processing power of programmable logic controllers have blurred the line between traditional Distributed Control Systems (DCS) and Process Automation Controllers (PAC). Application development and system implementation currently lags the accelerated rate of PAC hardware capabilities.

Model Predictive and Adaptive Control technology is one area that has been gaining traction in recent years. Software and hardware advancements in the coming years will allow implementation of these systems with a smaller technology footprint potentially making it available for a diverse range of process control loops. Increasing PAC processing capabilities will also create opportunities for advanced On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) providing OEM’s the capability to imbed expert and adaptive logic systems at the control panel level. OBD development will provide operators with advanced warning of pending upsets, faults, or even equipment failures. OBD indications can be as simple as alerting an operator to the presence of a combination of process conditions that will lead to accelerated catalyst deactivation, or as advanced as predicting an imminent intake valve failure allowing operators to control the shutdown of reciprocating compressors preventing significant engine damage and overhaul.

The diverse landscape of distributed production and mid-stream treating facilities will continue to put pressure on limited operating and maintenance staff at remote locations. Developments in wireless data communication, Ethernet based industrial networks and hand held tablets, computers, and smart phones are merging to provide operators and maintenance technicians with wireless, hand held access to control screens and process conditions that until recently were only available via radio voice communications. Remote monitoring, control and troubleshooting of equipment enables a few technicians to manage operations over large geographic areas. This expands opportunities for smaller companies with limited staff to explore and produce in remote areas.

Technology adoption, development of advanced diagnostic systems, and live data stream remote access capabilities will help make the operator of the future leaner, smarter and more efficient in producing and processing energy resources.