Well Site Automation 2019 Conference Focuses on Key Tech Trends in Upstream Oil & Gas

Author photo: Mark Sen Gupta
ByMark Sen Gupta
ARC Report Abstract


ARC Advisory Group had the opportunity to attend the 5th Annual Well Site Automation Conference held in Houston, Texas back in January. About 250 people attended the conference and there were about 15 exhibitors. As is the trend, there were no shortage of IIoT/analytics presentations. Networking bandwidth also continues to dominate discussions.

Well Site Automation well-site-automation-2019.logo.full.jpg

The overall theme focused on automation’s benefits in reducing costs and increasing revenue.  MQTT, a lightweight, publish/subscribe messaging protocol, has also surfaced as an approach to help solve this sector’s bandwidth issues; and analytics is being considered for a variety of applications.  A good mix of end users and vendors gave presentations.  Even as oil prices stabilize and cash flow improves, owner-operators continue to make targeted investments in automation where appropriate to reduce costs and increase efficiencies; so much so that the upstream oil & gas sector is starting to catch up with the other process industries in this respect. However, it is clear that the industry recognizes that automation alone is not the sole answer to its challenges.

Key findings include:

  • Upstream continues to lag other process industries in leveraging automation, but is rapidly closing the gap
  • MQTT is fast becoming the dominant protocol in new installations and upgraded systems, but legacy protocols will continue for quite a while
  • There are plenty of optimization opportunities for using analytics upstream

Emphasis on IIoT and Analytics

After a brief introduction by Conference Chair, Danny Durham from Apache Corporation, the program kicked off with short presentations by Paul Gould, global Head of Digital Strategy for Clariant; and Samantha McPheter, Chief Product Officer with eLynx Technologies.  A panel discussion, “Take Your Automation Program to the Next Level,” followed.

In his presentation, Mr. Gould mentioned that more foundational work is needed and that the industry uses 1950s techniques with 1980s technology to solve problems once the hydrocarbons are above ground.  The presentation incorporated a quote by Ahmed Hashmi, Global head of Upstream Technology at BP to the effect that the adoption of the digital oilfield could result in a 25 percent reduction in cost-per-barrel. Gould stated that the cost of bridging the middle hundred miles prevented the completion of full remote monitoring of wells. He offered up a low-power WAN like SigFox as a potential solution.

Next, Ms. McPheter discussed workflow transformation around analytics and the challenge of scaling solutions due to the need for clean data.

In the panel discussion that followed, panel participants covered topics such as training, safety, communication strategy, and data cleanliness.

Addressing the Industry’s Data Management Challenges

In this portion of the program, Charlie Kettner, Programming Specialist with ARC Resources Ltd., a Canadian oil and gas firm, presented his company’s efforts to modernize its SCADA implementation.  The company moved to higher speed networks, using satellite communications sparingly, and incorporated a distributed SCADA server architecture.  The new system addressed the personnel safety issue of operators’ time “behind the wheel.”  He also discussed data optimization, which amounts to optimizing the bandwidth and polling calls, while gathering enough operating information.  Mr. Kettner highlighted the need to include the data stakeholders in this discussion.  He also touched on the data storage requirements and the regulations at play.

eLynx Technology’s Samantha McPheter followed with a presentation about applying analytics to create meaningful information and reach the right decisions faster.  During the presentation, Ms. McPheter offered analytics as an answer to alarm management in the sense that the analytics could produce more pertinent alarms than the SCADA system.  eLynx has found that the use of analytics can increase uptime, enhance operator workflow, reduce engineering demand, and increase optimization of work through greater focus on what is pertinent.  During the question-and-answer session that followed, someone asked about data ownership.  Ms. McPheter answered that the data belonged to the well site, but eLynx also uses the data.  In response to a question about how long it takes to train the models, she shared that the automatic training of eLynx data analytics models was running in the one-hour range.

Automating Large Multi-well Pads

Chris Ziegler, RAS Business Unit Leader & STX Service Manager for Puffer-Sweiven, a systems integration firm based in the Houston area, presented on planning automation for large well pads. He explained how the Wellsite Automation Assessment Worksheet breaks down the required tasks into relevant categories.  These include site planning; operating philosophy; site access; and environmental, health, safety, and risk. The steps and considerations presented follow the general path as for a downstream operating facility, although with the added complexity of the networking.

Rogier Pouwer, Automation Engineering Manager for Anadarko Petroleum, then presented on his company’s approach to large well site automation.  Mr. Pouwer presented a slide focused on the design considerations around the automation. These considerations include the base control & safety platform, safety and best practice compliance, situational awareness, data availability and visibility, analytics and optimization, decision support, and operational support. He presented a slide on cybersecurity and network management and how Anadarko is changing its approach from network hardening to detection and mitigation using technologies like artificial intelligence.

Mr. Pouwer also spoke on why Anadarko is investigating using MQTT to meet the growing need for field data.  Some of the characteristics he listed were:

  • Resolution/Granularity
  • Speed/Availability
  • Frequency
  • Store & Forward capability
  • Non-Core Operational Data (i.e., diagnostics, context, attributes/ metadata)

Automation of Chemical Injection and Treatment

The conference included three presentations on automating chemical injection and treatment.

David Fontenot, Vice President of Automation with specialty chemical supplier, Pro-Ject Chemicals, presented on creating the business case for automated chemical injection.  He focused on the benefits of automation in proper dosing of chemicals, the savings over time, and the savings from reduced well failures.

Paul Gould presented on identifying technologies and applications to create a more consistent approach to chemical injection. He stated that the core benefits were increased uptime and production with reduced maintenance and risk.  According to Mr. Gould, while the automation involved is simple (level indication, pump and valve control, a flowmeter, and some alarms), this industry still sends people out to the field to perform this work manually on a periodic basis, an activity that is often measured in days.  He claims the payback on automating these types of functions is, at most, one month.  

James Gallyer, Senior Automation/Measurement Technician with EP Energy followed with a presentation on how to assess automation for low-performing and legacy wells. He spoke of the benefit of more data versus running blind as many do.  He also recommended that companies focus on applying incremental changes in an opportunistic fashion as opposed to a large capital effort.

Leveraging MQTT for Analytics

Steve Sponseller, Director of Market Insights in Oil and Gas for technology supplier, Kepware, presented on the value of MQTT and provided specific use cases.  His main point was that MQTT offers end users flexibility, whether the application includes legacy or new technologies.  He discussed an application with multiple SCADA servers feeding data through an MQTT translator and into the cloud.   According to Mr. Sponseller, this addresses the difficulty owner-operators have when collecting data from their servers using older methods and how the publish/subscribe ability increased the efficiency of the data flow. Another use case used a field-based data collector to serve the data to multiple top-end applications like SCADA, SAP, FlowCal, etc., highlighting the bandwidth efficiency.

Also on the technology supplier side, Cirrus Link’s President and CEO, Arlen Nipper, and Benson Houghland, Vice President at Opto 22, co-presented on a joint case study leveraging MQTT.  (Many might recognize Arlen Nipper as the co-inventor of MQTT.) According to the presentation, MQTT’s benefits are that it is open, simple, efficient, and stateful.  Interestingly, security is not defined within the MQTT specification, choosing to rely on the security of TCP/IP instead. It is also becoming the most popular IoT protocol in the marketplace, according to The Eclipse Foundation.  According to Mr. Houghland, Opto 22’s use of MQTT produced a system with multiple benefits.  The resulting system is easier to maintain, while lowing the cost of the system; the protocol produced better performance; data could be processed locally (at the edge) and would be available whenever it was needed; there were no restrictions on where data could go; there was minimal middleware required; and the reliance on IT was reduced.  The enhanced data flow that this implementation provided helped decouple the application from the hardware, allowing applications to be executed where it made sense.

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Keywords: Automation, Analytics, MQTT, Oil and Gas, Upstream, Well, Edge, Cloud, IIoT, ARC Advisory Group.

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