Proserv’s CTO Tore Erntsen, and Alan Peek, Director, Controls Technology, reveal how Trondheim is the centre for the firm’s subsea controls R&D activity
For oil and gas companies of all scales, from supermajors and small independent operators to global oilfield service providers, Norway represents a significant area of activity and opportunity.
Daily production stood at around 1.7mn barrels per day (bpd) at the end of 2019, before the recent impacts of Covid-19 and global oversupply, and once further big-ticket offshore fields in the Norwegian North Sea ramp up their output, when market conditions once again normalise, it will approach 2mn bpd.
Norway offers a mature and established environment and provides a breadth of opportunities for our various specialisms here at Proserv with our measurement team, as one example, undertaking its first metering project in the country some 20 years ago. This team now works with one of Europe’s largest energy multinationals on some of its flagship projects, including key storage terminals and subsea fields on the Norwegian Continental Shelf.
Indeed, Norway’s hydrocarbon output is increasingly driven by its subsea capabilities, as technological advances have opened up greater possibilities over the past decade. Industry forecasts suggest there will be more than 1,000 active subsea trees installed in Norwegian waters, both shallow and deep water, by 2025, placing it behind only Brazil globally.
As a developer and supplier of subsea controls systems, many of our more valuable contract wins in the country have been focused on large-scale subsea projects, where we have often helped upgrade or extend assets.
As subsea solutions embody such a principal strength for Proserv, our technological expertise and capability is spread across the globe, including in our centre of excellence in Great Yarmouth, England, but our research and development (R&D) hub, where our next generation subsea electronics module (SEM), the Artemis 2G (A2G) has evolved, is to be found in Trondheim, in central Norway.
The city is the home of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (known as NTNU), the country’s preeminent educational institution for engineering, and SINTEF, a major technological research organisation, which collaborates closely with NTNU. Trondheim is widely regarded as Norway’s technology capital, containing not only globally respected academic centres, but many small innovative companies and start-ups, contributing to the city’s reputation for innovation.
The core of our research team in Trondheim first came together over twenty years ago and so its ways of working and approaching new challenges are well established. There is no set template for such a process, every organisation will most likely have its own methodology, but for us innovation often advances in quite a collegial manner, for instance when the team has been approached regarding a possible enhancement to the performance of a piece of subsea equipment.
A bottom-up approach is employed where our engineers will effectively go through a feasibility phase to see if finding a solution or resolution is achievable. At this point, factors such as cost, need and the market are not really considered. As and when a result is attained, only then will economic considerations dictate its future viability.
Across the Proserv business portfolio, we have established a raft of technical authorities who offer a crucial link to the direct market for our R&D team. These authorities can communicate exactly how our systems are being utilised by our direct customers, what features are or aren’t being fully engaged, and even how our technology fits into the broader operation of a field.
Equally, some of our technical authorities also sit on key committees for international standards, such as the API 17F for subsea production control systems and the MCS-DCS Interface Standardisation (or MDIS) network, alongside leading global operators. This means that, in addition to the more immediate analysis from the market and present customers, they also gain access to wider industry considerations regarding future developments and issues.
This wealth of feedback, via the technical authorities, naturally has the potential to help inform our innovators in Trondheim, steer further R&D and, ultimately, create opportunities to continually improve and drive forwards our technology with direct relevance to current and future requirements.
Global market conditions also have a crucial role in shaping corporate strategy, leading to a more top-down method to influencing and driving possible R&D activity.
Part of our present subsea plan, in this time of challenging oil prices, is to push a more service-oriented model towards our clients, aimed at delivering upgrades and retrofits, not expenditure intensive wholesale replacements.
The evolution of our A2G SEM technology in Trondheim, with its coexistence capabilities, allied to the adaptability and flexibility of our wider team to tailor and identify specific solutions, have combined to facilitate a directly relevant business strategy.
Continually moving forwards
Innovation is not always about making a paradigm shift to spur a great leap but often based around gradual and continual steps forwards. At Proserv, we are looking to encourage a company-wide top-down initiative to pool feedback from customers, and others in the field, to be channelled into our technical authorities and our R&D team to generate greater targeted, focused research.
Ultimately, we are one component within a moving landscape where our competitors are looking to utilise and make gains from our strengths and innovations. To keep ahead, and to bolster our R&D capabilities, attracting new talent is a key ingredient. Young engineers challenge the norms: they will instinctively look at situations with a fresh eye, examining established methods and practices, and asking new questions. This scrutiny might lead to original techniques being employed or new electronics in our products.
Each summer, we bring several students in from NTNU to gain experience of working in a technology business and a feel for our R&D work. They get to know us and, in some instances, they have subsequently joined our team.
Proserv is taking a proactive role in the energy transition, using some of the technology developed in Trondheim to build a business in the offshore renewables sector. To support this push, we will need to augment our R&D team with engineers possessing the right skills and background.
Maintaining partnerships and collaboration with the likes of NTNU, SINTEF and the multiple technology firms throughout Trondheim will be essential to retaining access to innovative people, who will give us a greater chance of continued success.
This interview first appeared in the May issue of Pipeline Magazine