Larry Forster Project Advisor / Operational Effectiveness Team Lead
Larry Forster has 36 years’ experience in the oil and gas industry, primarily bringing new technology through the final stages of development into practical use. Specific...
Keeping oil and gas projects profitable when oil prices drop has been a key challenge for the past several years, though not the only one for the industry. While prices in the $70/bbl range have provided some relief recently, other challenges remain, such as how to manage the transition to a younger workforce as seasoned professionals retire and leave the industry.
Remote Operations represents an opportunity to address both profitability and demographics, and in the process, take a significant step towards the future for a highly traditional industry. In fact, preparing the industry for the future may prove to be the most important reason for giving serious consideration to Remote Operations, especially now. In the reconstructive environment following the oil price downturn, many companies are considering pro-active opportunities to make fundamental improvements to the ways that business is conducted. Remote Operations is one of them.
How Remote Operations Helps
The first benefit of Remote Operations is to reduce the numbers of personnel required on-site at offshore facilities, and relocate these personnel either at corporate offices or other office facilities. This relocation reduces the associated operational costs of housing and transportation, and also reduces the safety exposure for these individuals.
Relocation of personnel to land-based operations centers also serves to separate operational decision-making processes from the physical facility location. This approach opens the door to enhanced collaboration, either in person or online, between the traditional operations staff and multi-disciplined experts. Assimilation with the corporate business staff can more readily occur, to ensure the technical solutions are connected with the bottom line.
Another possibility from remote operations is resource utilization on a part-time basis; particularly for experienced professionals. This possibility may actually encourage retirement-age professionals to remain in the workforce – and to continue to contribute their experience. The transition to new ways of working, on multiple fronts, may well provide the stimulus of interesting challenges, coupled with an improved work-life balance, resulting in an attractive package.
Note that Remote Operations does not necessarily mean that personnel would never be utilized on-site. Depending on the particular situation, a smaller staff contingent might be deployed on a part-time, or even a full-time basis. The goals of cost reduction, as well as improving operational effectiveness would still be met by what may prove to be an optimal approach.
What’s Required for Successful Remote Operations
The basic requirements for remote operations include digital monitoring and control of process facilities and related equipment, suitable for external data collection and storage. Electronic data repositories are needed, both onshore and offshore, interconnected to ensure full data accessibility, for both the short term and long term. Secure, high speed and high bandwidth data communications are needed, with global reach.
The next key area is to shift from manual to virtual interfaces to equipment, to ultimately sufficiently replicate the touch and feel of the physical environment in remote operations centers. This task will require new approaches to equipment maintenance, including reduced or eliminated maintenance, or maintenance that can be automated and performed without manual intervention. Creative solutions in many diverse applications have appeared across the industry to establish a realistic virtual presence for operations personnel. Digital Twins, computerized simulations of the structures as well as the processes, represent one very useful concept to achieve a virtual presence.
In addition to the technology required for remote operations, there are essential tasks for the staff, and in fact, the entire organization in making the shift to remote operations. While certainly achievable, remote operations represent a new process, or set of processes, needing integration into current organizational culture. The new processes need to be clearly spelled out in terms of the new job roles, which will take the place of the traditional roles. Ensuring personnel health, safety, and environmental protection is a first priority in defining the new roles and processes. Skill sets of the current staff will need to be assessed in light of the new job descriptions, and training will need to be developed and administered. Employee compensation and reporting relationships will also need to be addressed.
Remote operations represent a significant organizational change, and thus change management principles will need to be followed. Firstly, agreement and support of senior management is essential, as is communication with affected employees. Early communication is critical, along with ensuring that the current staff is involved in the change effort. In addition to the affected staff, coordination with other departments and functions within the organization, which will be affected by the change, must occur. Some of the groups, which will be affected, include third party support organizations, such as system manufacturers and service companies.
A key factor in the success of change initiatives is to ensure that the change is sustainable. Sustainability will require suitable performance management, with measurable objectives and clear accountability to support the change. Along with adjustments to the compensation program to account for new job descriptions, incentive systems to reward support for the change, the new process and the effective implementation of the new process, can ensure that the new way of working is not only successful, but also long-standing.
Subsea Operations, as Well as Topsides
Subsea systems, usually located a number of miles from an offshore platform and connected via flowlines and supporting umbilicals, are inherently remotely operated, given their inaccessibility to direct human intervention. Subsea systems have traditionally relied on ultra-high reliability components and infrequent failures to achieve high uptime in operation. Basic remote operation of subsea systems, along with the associated topsides systems, is thus relatively straightforward.
Subsea equipment can join efforts with topsides equipment to become more virtually present to the remote operations staff in a number of ways, some already in place, others are in development. Internal process data from subsea components could be made available to assist in component failure prediction, to assist in operational planning. Likewise, advanced process monitoring from subsea systems, beyond basic pressure and temperature; such as multiphase flowmeters and in situ metallurgical monitoring; can directly support production optimization and system life assessment. Autonomous underwater vehicles can permanently reside at the subsea facility, normally docked for battery charging, and activated over wireless communication links when needed, for a variety of tasks, all under the purview of the remote operations staff.
Remote Operations is Scalable – Not Just for Megaprojects
One of the advantages of digital monitoring systems is the ability to handle and organize large quantities of data. Through standardized approaches, these systems can bring economies of scale, and also consistency and efficiency in handling data across a diverse array of process systems. Investments in these large systems make sense when the shift to remote operations involves changes to relative large offshore staff counts and the possibility of sizeable expense reductions.
Benefits of remote operations can still be achieved on a smaller scale, through selected digitization of key systems, and the associated smaller infrastructure changes required. Even for larger projects, starting small can be a good way to simplify the transition to a larger change, while ensuring that each small step makes a positive contribution.
Planning and implementation for Remote Operations for new projects is underway across the oil and gas industry as new projects approach sanction – see a key example by Premier Oil, for their Sea Lion project offshore Falkland Islands, as recently reported in Offshore Magazine. Remote access to offshore facilities actually has been in practice, to some extent, for some time. What is now starting to occur with more regularity are the conscious decisions to rely on remote access as key to offshore operations, and structuring the operational practice accordingly.
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