Steve Roberts: Accelerating the pace of digital change

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In my opinion there are three types of oil and gas people on the technical side – we’ll leave aside the support and commercial types for now.


Geoscientists were the first to move to digital. It was the 1980s and rather than draw contours with coloured pencils and measure everything with a ruler, we started using computers for these tasks in addition to seismic data processing. It was so much easier, if less artistic. Ultimately it became essential to use computers once we started acquiring 3D seismic data.

Drillers didn’t go digital until the mid-90s. They started measuring the data while they were drilling and often used it retrospectively to understand what had happened. However, in the mid 2000s they realised that they could actually rely on the data ahead of time. “Stuck pipe” – their biggest bugbear – could be avoided if they starting predicting problems based on data.

Engineers are the worst for dragging their heels. While they have been using computers for modelling and simulation for a while, it’s really only been this decade that they’ve started collecting and monitoring live data from equipment – but even now, it’s often compiled in the form of clunky spreadsheets.

I’m being facetious, but I think a lot of oil and gas people will know what I’m talking about.

I personally think our industry has been slow to adopt – at scale – real-time digital technology and the latest analytics. My sense, coming to the UKCS from elsewhere in the world, is that we need to collaborate more with data and really leverage this at last.

There are pockets of resistance. We at The Oil & Gas Technology Centre are trying to promote novel technology into an industry where it’s essentially always been the same, therefore many decision makers have the attitude: why change now? The simple answer is: necessity.

The Oil & Gas Technology Centre is empowered to look at other industries and discover technologies that others have used to great effect. There are some great parallels out there which demonstrate the business transformational nature of digitally based technologies.

The wonderful thing about the North Sea is its long history. There are a lot of data and we under-use much of it so there is a huge opportunity, if we don’t let it overwhelm us. We can go from reactive to predictive in our daily operations. We can optimise production and discover more barrels faster through leveraging transformational digital technologies.

I think one of our opportunities is to create more trust. I think there’s an anti-data mind-set, due to historic disorganisation. Data would come through thick and fast and we were never sure which was the most recent or reliable; but it’s different now.

The Oil & Gas Technology Centre can help identify technology that’s already out there, we can help fund some fledgling ideas from new start-ups with a great concept who just need some assistance to get their idea to market. Sometimes we can simply reduce some of the risk for operators wanting to try a great idea. There’s a growing appetite and the conditions are right. Sometimes I see new digital technology that makes me think: “WOW! If only I had had that when I was working as a geoscientist!”

However, there are a lot of incremental solutions out there – fragmented pieces of the jigsaw – the opportunity is to join these pieces up and find transformative solutions. One or two early adopters will demonstrate the value, some others will follow and some will need help and encouragement from the Oil & Gas Authority. Certain companies will need to be persuaded by their suppliers, or shown up by competitors, that there is a better and easier way of doing things before they change their own processes.

An example of how other industries have learnt to collaborate by using digital systems is the messaging system used by airlines, airports and air traffic control to communicate and optimise. It’s a central digital communications system and each has access to a part of it – so the airport finds out from the airline how many wheelchairs are needed at arrival, for example.

I know our industry can be quite secretive at times. Operators feel like they own the data and want to keep it to themselves, so any solution we adopt should respect that need for confidentiality. One area I think we could start with is marine logistics data. That could be easily shared and would demonstrate quite quickly savings across the industry and the benefits of this digitally based approach.

I’m excited about the ideas already coming through and even more optimistic that the Digital Solutions Centre at The Oil & Gas Technology Centre can help expedite them.

Watch this space.

Steve Roberts is digital transformation solutions centre manager at the Oil & Gas Technology Centre


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