Out of the Digitization Desert Step by Step to the Digital Oilfield

From Thomas Perschke* |

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Stand in many an oil field and you will feel yourself transported back to the early 1970s. Despite past price crises and predictions of “peak oil”, little has changed in terms of measurement data acquisition, monitoring, and automation. Employees travel long distances every day; their most important tools are pen and clipboard. Yet efficiency can be significantly increased simply by equipping the measuring points with radio systems. This is the first step on the road to the digital oilfield, at the end of which lies greater added value. The principle of Open Process Automation provides future-proofing.

The principle of Open Process Automation ensures future-proofing.
The principle of Open Process Automation ensures future-proofing.
(Source: Kokhanchikov@shutterstock.com)

There is probably no industry in which the quality of automation technology equipment varies as widely as in the oil and gas sector. Even in highly developed countries, there are oil fields where “digital” seems to be a foreign word. At many production sites, people continue to work in the good old oil cowboy manner. The widely scattered production sites are regularly visited by pickup trucks so that workers can read data such as temperature and pressure, note them on the clipboard and later enter them in Excel lists. In the oil gathering centers, the pipelines from various wells converge. The opportunity to achieve the economically best API (American Petroleum Institute) grade through automated blending is often missed. You will often look in vain for professional leakage monitoring of the pipelines and automated overfill protection at the terminals (Figure 1).

The situation is completely different in those oil fields where well-trained experts have used the past few years to automate and, in some cases, digitalize operations. The global financial crisis that began in 2009, which also caused the oil price to collapse, had a major impact — and not just because of increased economic pressure to think about more efficient production and processing. A wave of layoffs and early retirements also led to a rejuvenation of the workforce in the years following the crisis. Engineers fresh out of university, equipped with the necessary knowledge about the potential of state-of-the-art automation and digitization, bring a different mindset — especially to long-standing plants in need of significant modernization.

Step 1: Wireless Measurement Data Transmission

But where to start? The first step will usually be to equip the existing field devices so that data can be continuously recorded and stored in higher-level systems. This is easily done thanks to robust wireless transmission technology, which allows existing pressure, flow, level and temperature measuring points to be retrofitted even in hazardous areas. Whether to choose existing systems such as Phoenix Contact’s Radioline with Trusted Wireless 2.0 radio technology (transmission over up to 5 miles (8 km) without repeaters) or future 5G campus networks depends on the requirements and the existing conditions. Comprehensive solutions can be created by combining modules for both hazardous and non-hazardous areas that even allow monitoring of valve positions and pump status by means of digital signals (Figure 2).

Over long distances, the data can be sent to a control room in the field or a central control room. There, they can be displayed directly or with the help of a SCADA or process control system. This lays the foundation for convenient monitoring without leaving the comfort of the control room, whether the oil field lies in a desert or the freezing wastes of Alaska or Siberia.

Safety and the environment also benefit from this. All too often, leaks from pipelines go undetected for long periods of time, resulting in large-scale contamination of the soil. Wireless technology can also be used to monitor the availability and operation of emergency showers and eyewash facilities. The next employee who has to use them will be grateful to find that they work and that an emergency crew has been alerted (Figure 3).

Step 2: Automation Increases Quality and Efficiency

The step from efficient continuous data acquisition to higher automation is not far. In the gathering centers, for example, the contractually agreed API grade can be set specifically by controlling the pumps and control valves in the supplying pipelines. Water separators can also be operated and monitored automatically. Of particular importance is the control of water or gas injection systems that prevent the oil production pressure from decreasing during oil production.

Step 3: From Condition Diagnosis to Increased Overall Plant Effectiveness

A big step further in the direction of the digital oilfield is taken by operators who record and evaluate not only their process data, but also the status information provided by digital field devices and intelligent pumps and compressors. Such an approach allows various Industry 4.0 use cases to be realized. One of these is the transition from reactive or preventive to predictive maintenance, with consequent savings in labor and spare parts. This is associated with an increase in equipment availability and reduced downtime. All of this can be achieved with relatively small investments that quickly pay for themselves, simply because of the longer operating times that can be enabled for costly API pumps.

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Step by step, the digital oilfield is becoming more efficient. Real-time diagnostics, and Industry 4.0 applications based on these diagnostics and the integration of the various data silos, also make it possible to continuously improve processes in terms of operational excellence. Oilfield operators can benefit from the experience that the chemical industry, for example, has gained in recent years with the possibilities of digitization. By visualizing and contextualizing the data, trends can be derived and key performance indicators (KPIs) such as overall plant effectiveness can be successively optimized.

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Project Examples

Openness Facilitates Digital Transformation Drive

Future-proof technologies play a central role in converting long-standing extraction sites into digital oilfields. In particular, open ecosystems such as PLCnext Technology from Phoenix Contact enable modern automation tailored to the requirements and potential of Industry 4.0. Global oil field operators are already taking advantage of Open Process Automation (OPA) options. Existing systems can be expanded via a so-called Distributed Control Node (DCN), which allows the implementation of OT services such as advanced control and process optimization. The Namur Open Architecture (NOA) developed by representatives of the chemical industry, in which a side channel is used for monitoring and optimization alongside the core process automation, is also increasingly gaining acceptance in the oil and gas industry. Robust I/O systems such as Axioline F and Axioline P, which are ideal for process applications thanks to features such as redundancy, hot-swappability and intrinsic safety, ensure an economical setup (Figure 4).

Production Rates Stabilized

Numerous projects implemented by Phoenix Contact and its system partners in the oil and gas industry illustrate the benefits of expertise in various automation and digitization solutions. When equipping a water injection system, for example, it was possible to keep the production rate of a reservoir stable over a long period of time by recording and controlling flow and pressure measurements and integrating them into a SCADA system via Modbus TCP. This also involved recording HART signals from the flow meter and performing condition monitoring.

Precise API Density Controlled

Another project involved the automation equipment of a gathering center. Compact controllers were used in conjunction with an uninterruptible power supply to ensure maximum plant availability. Based on pressure, level and temperature measurements, pumps and valves are controlled to feed the crude oil streams from all wells in a regulated manner. The control system also supports asset monitoring by using HART signals. The resulting automation solution enables the targeted production of crude oil blends with the contractually agreed API grade.

Control System for a Pigging Plant

Another interesting reference concerns the control cabinets for pig sending locks in Kazakhstan. The Inline I/O system with Ex i modules and Inline controllers of type ILC 131 ETH are used for this purpose. The stations can be monitored wirelessly via a Radioline radio system and integrated into the higher-level automation system. In the same oil field, the control cabinets at the drilling sites were also equipped with Radioline I/O expansion modules. These are approved for use in Zone 2 and feature galvanic channel-to-channel isolation.

Cybersecurity for Leakage Monitoring

Solutions for automatic leak detection on pipelines, such as those offered by some measurement technology manufacturers, also hold high optimization potential. They provide suitable software tools and the necessary instrumentation. Phoenix Contact contributes the technology for data acquisition in the field control cabinets and ensures cybersecurity during transmission to the central control room, for example by using secure routers of the FL mGuard series (figure 5).

All solutions can also be created by system integrators. These are carefully trained by Phoenix Contact and supported in the selection of components and the design of control cabinets.

Securing Competitiveness With Open, Digital Solutions

In the transition to the digital oilfield, Phoenix Contact can provide sustainable support thanks to its many years of experience in the process industries, combined with its expertise in equipping plants in potentially explosive atmospheres. In the past, the company has helped shape trends towards open, flexible solutions such as NOA and OPA. These are becoming a reality, not least through the concept of “enhanced connectivity”, which goes well beyond the physical connection. In the future, the open, Linux-based control platform PLCnext Technology will play a major role in implementing such concepts and thus in the digitization of oilfields.

The platform will simplify control system migrations by taking on the role of DCN (Distributed Control Node), providing secure, redundant connectivity to new real-time service buses as well as to existing and new field devices. In addition, the platform hosts external software and runtimes, making the principle of Open Process Automation a reality. In this way, the robustness, safety and reliability of automation technology are combined with the demand for openness, flexibility and future-proofing in the digital oilfield (Figure 6).

It is worthwhile for every operator to take the first steps out of the automation desert. Even automatic measurement data acquisition via remote transmission opens up great potential. The road to all-round optimized operation, supported by Industry 4.0 applications, is then less arduous and, above all, less cost-intensive than one might suspect.

* T. Perschke, Director Industry Management Oil and Gas, Phoenix Contact Electronics