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Operational excellence just got a lot more complicated

Sep 07, 2020
6 min read
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By: Ron Beck, market strategy director, Aspen Technology Inc.

The world of energy just got more complicated, and that certainly applies to operational excellence in oil and gas operations. 

You are likely finding yourself operating oil and gas fields with all but the most essential workers remote while your key systems are not set up to support operational excellence imperatives remotely.

For that reason, upstream organisations are going from seeing digitalisation as a “nice-to-have,” with some runway to plan the future, to instead an essential initiative. It is a helter-skelter race to find new ways to apply technology to maintain and improve operational excellence in the oil patch.  

The market says you must operate your oil fields at a lower break-even cost per barrel. This is most likely going to include taking people out of the oil field (for their health and safety) and reducing operating and capital expenditures. However, at the same time, you absolutely must maintain safe operating conditions and you need to achieve increased reliability.

Even when operating at lower production rates, even when trimming your OPEX, even with a lower staff on site in the field, you still have the same, maybe even an elevated need to improve your safety reliability and productivity.

Let’s take a tour of some of the digital enablers, and how companies are making them work today.

Prescriptive maintenance using machine learning.

Insight from the past five months in the upstream world tells us that artificial intelligence (AI and machine learning) must be adopted on an accelerated basis in upstream. What AI will do is provide prescriptive and actionable insights based on operating data to provide a “feed forward” planning ahead to take actions which will preserve production uptime and avoid infrastructure degradation. The result: Improved safety, reduced risk and uptime. This also saves capital.  Today, 10 per cent of capital investment in capacity is tied up handling unplanned downtime. 

Industrial AI

The above is possible not simply from “vanilla AI,” because the petroleum and chemical engineering principles are too complex for data algorithms to move forward without domain knowledge.  This is where industrial AI comes into play, putting domain expertise guardrails around advanced data analytics and achieving what we call a democratization of AI for the energy industry. Applications that are usable and valuable in the oil field capitalize on machine learning but don’t require a data scientist. It is the confluence of data plus multivariate machine learning analytics plus expertise.

A major FPSO operator in Southeast Asia has implemented this technology to monitor production equipment health from a central onshore location.  Production pumps, injection pumps, produced water filtration and handling are all monitored through data streams and prescriptive maintenance (in this case, the award-winning Aspen Mtell application)

Optimised well production

Advanced process control, a staple of downstream oil and gas operational excellence, has finally moved into the upstream world.  Forced by the need for increased agility and increased well productivity, a global top-five upstream operator has implemented the most advanced form of process control, Adaptive Process Control, on multiple production platforms. This solution takes the minute-by-minute decisions of an operator to adjust well chokes, compressors, and separators out of the hands of an on-platform operator and into the hands of an automated system. This can exactly translate the operating strategy set by the reservoir engineers into the read time optimized production settings (which are now monitored by an operator who can be onshore).  Also, the adaptive control technology is constantly monitoring the effectiveness of its settings in the context of changing hydrocarbon compositions and pressure. The result: multimillion dollars in benefits per platform per year from running production closer to the optimum, coupled with increased uptime of equipment and safer operations.   

Safety-focused digital twin

Safety operations is another crucial area that digital technology can fundamentally help with.  Process safety in complex operations, such as gas processing and offshore gathering systems, requires modelling and constant revalidation of safety envelopes. These models exist, and now that advanced techniques can be applied, can be put online to establish things such as ability of production expansion to be safely operated, impact of reconfiguration, impact of deferred maintenance and the like. Medco Energi developed a digital twin model of their offshore gas production infrastructure to evaluate field development against HIPPS safe operating envelopes. This enabled a brownfield operating company to maximise production while increasing production, achieving over 20 million dollars in value in reduced cost per well from the digital twin in one year.

Sustainability digital twin

In the final stop on our quick tour of digitalisation opportunity, asset models are invaluable strategic tools in addressing sustainability.  A digital twin model can calculate what is known as a “virtual sensor,” a calculation in place of a physical sampling device. In one example in the Middle East Region, ADNOC put in place a digital twin model (employing AspenTech’s asset optimization system) that measured energy use, utility costs, water use, and fugitive emissions across the giant Shah gas field.  By making this information actionable to all field workers, the system provided actionable advice to improve these sustainability metrics. For instance, it eliminated 1 per cent of hydrocarbon losses, which then were turned from an emissions problem into a contribution to revenue.

So, you want a digital twin in your oil or gas field. And you want it now. Well there is no one thing that constitutes a digital twin, as this discussion has revealed. You will have to decide what type of digital twin you need to address your most urgent operational excellence needs. In other words, for what business purpose are you deploying digital technology?

Suddenly, there is an imperative to have “a digital twin.” Hopefully, this has provided a sampling of what this can provide for an organization, how will it support your operational excellence needs, and - most importantly - how it can keep your workers safer by making your operations more reliable and better performing.

Digital tools mobilise your rivers of data. They can model the operations, using both first principles models and advanced AI for (a) safety, (b) reliability, (c) well productivity, (d) operational efficiency, and  e)  cost optimisation.

In this brief article, hopefully I’ve contributed a few ideas as to how oil and gas companies can employ digital technology to navigate the complexity that is the energy universe in 2020.