2019July/AugustSafety and ESG

Driller’s role is fast evolving, and they need our support

By Linda Hsieh, Editor & Publisher

As the drilling industry pushes ahead with the long-time-coming automation/digitalization transformation, its impact on humans cannot be underestimated. “The biggest risk with technology is how it affects people, their traditional roles and expectations of those roles, and what they need to be successful,” Kevin Neveu, 2019 IADC Chairman and Precision Drilling President and CEO, said at the IADC Houston Chapter luncheon on 29 May. “Making sure we don’t leave our crews behind is essential.”

In particular, the driller’s position sits at the center of all the changes that are happening. Organizations must remain highly alert to how that role is evolving and provide the necessary support to ensure success.

Some lessons can be derived from previous evolutions of the driller’s role, Mr Neveu noted. Before the late 1970s, drilling rigs were primarily mechanical systems. Drillers in those days had to understand well control, the drilling process and how to work with large, heavy-duty machinery. “They also had to demonstrate their leadership and capability, which usually meant physical presence and strength to become a driller,” he said. Further, the driller was responsible for the safety of the crew and interactions with the operating company supervisor.

That was already a demanding job. But when the DC SCR rig came along, followed by other mechanization tools like top drives and Iron Roughnecks, skills requirements expanded even further. “The driller’s skills had to adapt quickly, and his role increased,” Mr Neveu said. “You have to understand maintenance and prepare these tools. You have to know how to drill differently, and you have to manage the crews differently.”

By the late ’90s and early 2000s, the advent of AC variable frequency drives was again adding more layers of complexity to the driller’s job. The addition of things like PLCs and integrated multi-board computers created a whole new paradigm in drilling controls.

“Again, the driller bore the brunt of the technology change,” Mr Neveu said. One of the most significant shifts that took place during this time – whose impact Mr Neveu believes was underestimated – was taking the driller off the rig floor and putting him into the control cabin. “That physical repositioning was the most significant transition we’ve put the driller through in the last generation… He lost the ability to really engage with his crew.” Communication was now done via loudspeaker or radio, and it became harder to make eye contact with various crew members. “The driller lost his immediate ability to step in and train – the hands-on training that we’ve built our business on over the years.”

Not only that, but the driller shifted from direct machine control to a man-machine interface, Mr Neveu added.

Back to the present now – as the industry transitions to full-scale automation and data analytics, it’s facing changes that are even broader and more impactful than when we adopted AC technology, he asserted.

“The driller must become a process automation control expert, while he retains those traditional competencies, including well control, drilling process operations, mechanical, electrical, digital equipment troubleshooting, leadership, safety, crew training. It’s become an even more complex job.”

At Precision, one strategy that’s being tested to address this challenge is to add a new position on the rig that acts like a driller. This individual stands outside the cabin on the rig floor – managing, training and overseeing the safety of the floor crew. This allows the driller to focus on the drilling process.

“We’ve had excellent success with this trial,” he said. “I can tell you that the operators struggled with the cost of adding another person to the rig floor. I am a strong believer that long-term performance will justify this cost.” Final crew configurations are likely to play out over the next several years, he added.

Not only drillers, but operating company supervisors’ roles also will change in the coming years, and “traditional roles like the directional driller will eventually disappear on the rig,” he said. “We know that people abhor change … especially when it comes to long-established traditional roles. But this change is inevitable. As an industry, it behooves us to drive that change rather than be left behind.” DC

About the author

Linda Hsieh is a graduate of the journalism program at the University of Texas at Austin, where she also completed the Business Foundations program at the U.T. McCombs School of Business and minored in Asian Studies. She has been writing for Drilling Contractor since 2005.


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