Companies moving to fully embrace digitalization as they realize that cost-cutting won’t lead to innovations the industry needs to face future challenges
By Kelli Ainsworth Robinson, Associate Editor
Etienne Roux is President, Drilling and Evaluation, for Weatherford.
What do you consider to be the most critical issues facing the drilling industry today?
It’s probably no surprise, but I think the two that stand out are still efficiency and safety. In today’s environment, those are the considerations that drive most decision-making in our industry. As an industry, over the past couple of years, we have achieved a lot of cost efficiency through a brute force approach of cost cutting. We’ve done all we can on that front. However, we can’t cost-cut our way to the next level of efficiency. We can’t cut any more people, and we can’t continue to cut CAPEX. We have to do something different.
At Weatherford, our focus is on how we can automate more of the well construction process so that we can help our customers become even more efficient in their operations. Today, operators in most areas of the world are comfortable drilling at $50 to $60/bbl, but for them to become really successful, we will have to drive efficiency to the next level, and that’s going to come through automation and digitization.
What are some of the major opportunities you see for automation that haven’t been realized yet?
I still see a big opportunity for us to truly reduce the number of people on the rig. We’ve talked about this for years, but I don’t think we’ve really achieved all the efficiencies that are possible with automation. In the coming years, I think automation can help us to further reduce the human footprint and human intervention required during the drilling process. The fewer people you have on the rig, the safer you can be. Moreover, having fewer people interacting with the processes and equipment translates to a lower likelihood of human error.
We also need to remember that we’ve lost a lot of talent in this downturn. How do we make up for that? It’s not by doing what we’ve done for the last 60 years, and it’s not by recruiting large numbers of engineers yet again. It’s by putting in place smarter systems and processes to reduce our reliance on humans at the well site so that we can have a more efficient and repeatable process during the drilling phase.
The other big opportunity rests with nonproductive time (NPT). We’re always working to improve our maintenance processes and tools that are sent to the rig to service and operate a well. But in those maintenance processes, there are still technicians who have to lay their hands on these tools, and they can make mistakes. If we automate the maintenance and drilling processes and if we install closed-loop control that allows our rigs to drill by themselves, we will drive greater efficiency and reduce NPT.
What are some of the barriers that are preventing the industry from realizing these benefits?
It’s the mindset. It requires a change in culture, which is hard. We’ve been working a certain way in the oil and gas industry for a very long time. In theory, we all believe that we like to adopt new technologies, but when it comes down to putting a drill bit or a completion string in the hole, we tend to rely on the way we’ve always done it.
One way to start to change the mindset is to think about the talent we recruit into the industry. Historically, we’ve recruited engineers and people in earth sciences. But increasingly we should look to Silicon Valley types and recruit software engineers and data scientists who can bring a completely different mindset to our business. By doing so, we can drive the thought processes that will help us develop automation and machine learning, which is something that is a challenge for a mechanical engineer, like myself, who is used to running a tool in a certain way.
For the people who are already in our industry, I think we are starting to see shifts in their mindsets. They’re seeing more and more oil and gas companies establish long-term partnerships with tech companies like Intel and IBM, and they’re realizing that digitalization is here to stay. An example I use is the smartphone we all have in our pockets. We’re all wizards with apps these days, but as soon as we set foot on a well site or we start planning a well, all of that’s out the door, and we’re back to squiggly lines on paper and Excel spreadsheets. When our people start to see what companies like Intel and IBM can do for us, it will help to drive that mindset change, especially with our mid-career people.
What other benefits do you see these partnerships with tech giants bringing to the industry?
Weatherford’s partnership with IBM began in mid-2016. It’s allowing us to leverage IBM’s skills in analytics and the Internet of Things (IoT), which was a foreign concept to us as recently as 2016. Coupling that with our production optimization technologies at the well site, for example, has already improved our ability to help operators meet their production goals. In 2017, we also joined forces with Intel to develop scalable, secure IoT oilfield devices to further drive production optimization.
We get to leverage different expertise from these partnerships. We simply don’t have the same skill sets that tech companies have embedded in their own organizations. In the longer term, these collaborations can transform our own recruitment and training strategies. We can observe how tech companies train their people and what they focus on, and we can try to replicate some of their skill sets in our own organization. There are still very few people within service companies that have true bespoke knowledge and skills in things like machine learning, automation and the IoT. We’ll need those skills in order to get to the next level of innovation.
When developing automation technologies within Weatherford, how do you ensure that the solutions you create add value, not complexity?
One of the best ways to make sure your employees don’t accept automation is to make it extremely complex. Our goal is always to invest in automation that drives consistent performance with reliable and repeatable results. If we introduce automated processes that are very simple, based on data that we are already acquiring, the outcomes will be repeatable, and people will see how beneficial it is to their daily work.
Imagine if a drilling or managed pressure drilling (MPD) engineer could just input the basic parameters for a well into a surface system, then let that system take over based on a feedback loop and maintain those parameters. Our people could then focus on much broader decision making, as opposed to looking at a screen and trying to guess what the next step should be. Automation needs to be as simple as the smartphone that each of us carries, and it needs to be intuitive to drive adoption.
Sensors are crucial to any effort to automate the drilling process. What are some of the challenges or limitations around sensors and ensuring the quality of data they collect?
Sensors are only as good as the data they provide. For sensors to contribute to an automated system, they need to remain calibrated in a very harsh operating environment. They need to record and deliver data with as little variation as possible. Right now, we use humans to maintain and calibrate sensors, and it can be a very intensive and manual process to keep all the sensors working.
We need to develop sensors that are so unobtrusive that you’ll never see them. Once they’re installed, they’ll never have to be taken out again. We need to install these sensors and allow them to communicate on mesh networks so we don’t have to rely on cables anymore. If you’ve ever rigged up a rig in the Gulf of Mexico, you know they still have to run miles of cabling. That in itself creates a lot of opportunities for sensor data to become corrupted.
Our industry needs to leverage sensor companies outside of our industry so we can take sensors to the next level, to where they’re almost invisible and can calibrate themselves. Look at some of the newer thermostats that are used in homes – they calibrate themselves when they pick up on changes in moisture and temperature in the air. That is the kind of technology we need to move to on our rigs.
If the technology is already out there, why aren’t we bringing them into our industry?
When engineering budgets are set for each year, there is a strong tendency to focus on big-ticket items like drilling tools or completion strings as opposed to things that are perceived to be small – almost mundane – like surface sensors. To change this will require that change in mindset I mentioned earlier. We have to realize that if we want to deliver a fully automated service and if we want to harness machine learning, we have to start looking at things we might not have looked at before – surface sensors being one of them.
How are automation and digital technologies impacting the development of MPD technologies?
They’re helping us to make MPD more accessible to operators. We recently released our Pressure-Pro Control System, which is essentially a fully integrated rotating control device and choke system for wellbore pressure management on land. It incorporates semi-automated functionality and a user-friendly interface to avoid massive MPD installations that require a huge number of engineers to operate and maintain.
Before drilling starts, an engineer will simply input the desired pressure that the system needs to maintain. During the drilling process, the system automatically senses downhole pressure and will instantly adjust the choke to maintain the wellbore pressure within 5 psi of the set point. It eliminates the need for an engineer to watch for pressure changes and decide how to act. One engineer might see a pressure change and decide to close the choke a little bit. But what is a little bit? Is it one turn of the valve? Two turns? Another engineer might decide he or she doesn’t even need to do anything. By using an automated system, the guesswork is eliminated.
There’s been a lot of effort to push performance in drilling, but what are the next steps to push performance in completions?
We’re seeing the same push for efficiency in completions as we are in drilling. The industry has moved toward constructing more complex and highly leveraged wells, often in difficult operating environments, and that increased complexity has come with increased completion times. To address this, we’ve embarked on collaborations with operators to look at the total cost of well ownership.
One example of this collaboration is the WFX0, a fourth-generation gravel-pack system that we developed with a major operator. It’s capable of running multizone gravel-pack operations and reducing time, cost and risk. The system’s open-hole sealing technology eliminates the need for a casing run. Coupled with our shunt screens, it allows us to eliminate multiple pumping events.
Over the full field development with this operator, they saved close to $1 billion and eliminated hundreds of well interventions. Think about the amount of people and manpower that don’t have to be involved in those interventions.
We’re also leveraging RFID technology on our completion strings. If something goes wrong downhole, we can pump an RFID tag down the well, send down a signal and adjust the operation to get around the problem.
With automation and digital technologies changing the way we drill wells, how do you think the industry’s business models will change?
The last three years have been quite eye-opening for us. They have forced us to look at different ways of working. We’re driving to become more of a solutions provider and problem-solving partner for operators. We want to be a provider of integrated solutions, not just a tool rental company. This means that we need to share in the results achieved, as well. Shifting to a reward mechanism where service companies share in the successes of operators, rather than just charging an operator for a tool on a per-day or per-meter basis, has been a holy grail for so long.
How can the industry move closer to this holy grail?
We need to become more closely aligned with operators, and we need to prove to them that we can deliver results in a different way. We’ll need to find operators who are willing to be early adopters, then show them what we can do. Once an operator sees a higher return on their investment, they will want more of that model. DC