Drilling Rigs & AutomationNews

To adopt automated drilling systems at scale, industry will need to overcome fragmentation, build trust

By Stephen Whitfield, Associate Editor

The term “digital transformation” has long been a buzzword within the oil and gas industry. Only in recent years has that “buzz” finally started to translate into true change. And, now, automation discussions are pivoting toward how to implement those changes at scale.

A panel of industry experts explored how collaboration between stakeholders can help accelerate the adoption of automated drilling systems during the SPE DSATS/IADC ART Symposium held on 8 March. Speakers included: (top row, from left) Francesco Ferri, Transocean; Michael Edwards, Edwards Energy Innovation Consultancy (moderator); Bjorn Rudshaug, Equinor; Sven Krueger, Baker Hughes; (middle row, from left) Frederik Ellekjær, Rystad Energy; Matthew Forshaw, Baker Hughes (moderator); Trevor Burgess, Lime Rock Partners; Johan Kverneland, Total; (bottom row, from left) Kai Kostøl, MHWirth; Sigve Hovda, Equinor.

However, industry fragmentation is hurting that effort, panelists at the 8 March SPE DSATS/IADC ART Symposium agreed. The workshop was held as part of the 2021 SPE/IADC International Drilling Conference.

Francesco Ferri, Performance Efficiency Manager at Transocean, noted the significant role that automation is now playing to bring consistent performance to contractors’ rig fleets. However, the fragmented nature of the traditional business model for a drilling operation – where operators, drilling contractors, OEMs and other service providers work with different priorities and goals – continue to act as a barrier.

That fragmentation leads to challenges around data ownership, for example. Automated systems can only provide a competitive advantage if all stakeholders in an operation are willing to share data and work toward a common goal.

“Most of the time, the entity that creates the data is also the only one allowed to use it. This leads to conflicts and misalignments,” Mr Ferri said. “If there are poor results, each company blames the other.”

However, he believes drilling contractors are well positioned to mitigate these issues. “The drilling contractor sits in a unique position, as all services are effectively executed onboard its assets. It’s natural to see the drilling contractor act as the data integrator – receiving, processing and distributing information to across the operation with the ultimate goal of improved well delivery,” Mr Ferri said.

Service companies can also contribute through collaboration on joint industry projects and pilot test programs – proving the value of new systems and, therefore, accelerating their adoption in the field.

“With a fast scale-up, the industry needs to collaborate even more,” said Sven Krueger, Service Technology Leader at Baker Hughes. “We need to focus on developing a shared digital infrastructure and on the applications that use that shared digital infrastructure. This would allow all the players involved to effectively focus on the applications that ultimately bring value to drilling applications.”

Another critical challenge to deploying automation at scale is how to integrate multiple users within a single workflow, Mr Krueger continued. A new system often means a redefinition of roles and responsibilities for companies within an operation, and it can be difficult for companies to agree on how to define those roles.

Bjorn Rudshaug, Strategic Project Manager of Automated Drilling at Equinor, echoed these sentiments. He noted that fragmentation is as much of a cultural hurdle as a technical one. In fact, introduction of new systems into a company’s workflow can be as complicated a process as the technical development of the system itself.

“There are a variety of stakeholders present in a drilling operation, and all these stakeholders need to trust the technology,” Mr Rudshaug said. “This could be a conflict. Does a particular technology affect the service company’s service in a negative way? If that is the case, who decides whether the technology is going to be used or not?”

While Equinor emphasizes collaboration with drilling contractors and service companies in establishing key performance indicators (KPIs), building consensus around these KPIs can be a time-consuming process, slowing down the adoption of new systems.

Mr Ferri said he believes comprehensive training is key to building trust and helping companies better understand what they want to get out of automated technologies. Equally important is listening to feedback from people in the field to see the new systems can better fit within their workflows.

In that vein, he said, Transocean has focused heavily on the human-machine interface of its systems, particularly in minimizing the amount of information a driller has to process at any given time.

“One of the questions that we ask our team all the time is, how can we reduce the number of screens that the driller has to look at? How can we help the driller perform a certain operation so that he has less disruption? We have new solutions and new tools for doing that, where we focus on combining information in an easier, more visual way into one screen so that the driller manages the system more effectively,” Mr Ferri continued. “It’s a two-way discussion. If we want our people to use automation, we have to listen to their feedback.”

There’s also a lack of defined standards for utilizing automation within the wider industry, which is hindering automation deployment, said Fredrik Ellekjær, Partner at Rystad Energy. This lack of standardization in the application of automation systems makes it difficult for developers to come up with solutions that can utilized quickly.

“One of the keys to selling software as a service is that we’re not coming into an industry that’s standardized,” Mr Ellekjær said. “Each operator does things the way they want to do it. You need to qualify with each operator, and typically that creates quite a bit of need for customization. That’s the key challenge for scaling things up. The industry needs to be able to adopt these types of products without demanding a lot of customization.”

Trevor Burgess, Managing Director of Lime Rock Partners, argued that vertical integration of a drilling operation can help new developers overcome the hurdles to entry. This means the industry will have to be more aggressive in adopting open-source software applications. Doing so would shift the onus of customization away from the software developer, since they would be offering a base platform that vendors could adjust as they see fit.

“What we’d like to see in private equity is to move more towards a world of application development, where we’ve got open systems on rigs and application developers can develop more software-based systems, with the intent of operating under more of a software-as-a-service model,” Mr Burgess said. “We’re still a long way from that, but I think that’s really the way we need to go.”

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