Malcolm Banks: Safety Technologist

Article by Malcolm Banks

Digital transformation is disrupting industry and how people work

SINCE the tragedy of Piper Alpha 30 years ago, we’ve witnessed significant changes in operations offshore, and safety has improved dramatically.

Technology is key to driving the next step change in performance, and the fourth industrial revolution provides real opportunities for change.

Automation can remove people from hazardous environments, while big data could be used to reduce equipment failure or improve decision-making.

We must seize this opportunity.

The role of the Oil & Gas Technology Centre is to collaborate with industry, co-fund projects, accelerate technology development, and make this safe future a reality.

We’re working across a number of key areas that could have a transformative effect on safety.

Non-intrusive inspection

Inspecting large process pressure vessels and tanks has traditionally been carried out by workers entering a confined space and carrying out a manual inspection. Sadly, between 2003–2011 there were 22 fatalities related to confined space entry.

To combat this issue, we undertook an industry survey and series of field trials to investigate the opportunities and potential value add for using non-intrusive inspection (NII) technology, which involves robots inspecting the interior of the vessel, meaning no man entry is required.

The survey, conducted in partnership with ABB, identified that up to 80% fewer confined space entries would be required if North Sea operators switch to using NII technology. There would be an increase in production and reduced maintenance costs worth £242m/y (US$320m/y) to the UKCS.  Four pilot studies are under way with operators to demonstrate the potential further.

The results of three NII trials, organised by the Oil & Gas Technology Centre and Total E&P UK, demonstrated that the technology can deliver significant cost, safety and efficiency benefits compared with traditional intrusive methods.

Digitally enabled worker

Digital transformation is fundamentally changing the way we all live, work and interact and is already disrupting almost every industrial sector. If we embrace new technology and opportunities, we can transition to digitally enabled workers. The days of work being conducted manually with observations recorded on paper and then entered into spreadsheets needs to be behind us.  

Instead, workers offshore are equipped with devices including tablets and wearables, that can be used safely in operational environments, to enter data from the jobs they are working on. This data is shared with teams onshore and offshore and feeds directly into the real-time decision-making processes.

Digital twins of assets will deliver automatic compilation, analysis, visualisation and predictive information, to allow optimisation of inspection and maintenance tasks.

The workplace of the digitally enabled worker may also change. They may work on minimally manned assets or onshore in fully integrated control centres, capable of remote control of offshore facilities.

All of these opportunities have the potential to increase safety performance.

Rig floor automation

Drilling rigs have relied heavily on manual handling and operational control for too long, and it’s another example of where we’re playing catch-up with other industries.

The rig floor continues to be one of the highest risk areas, but discovery of new technologies could change this. Developing automated handling systems would remove personnel from hazardous areas. We need to connect systems and share data from across drilling activity, including the rig floor, pipe decks and mud room. Establishing an industry-wide system standard would help with this.

We’re working on automation of the drilling process to reduce the reliance on the driller. Introducing systems which use high volumes of real-time data could augment the decision-making process or even move to full closed-loop control of the drilling process.

Facilities of the future

We are focussing on how we transform future field developments to unlock marginal discoveries. How do we reimagine our approach and utilise new technologies so we can remove people from hazardous areas and explore minimal manning approaches?

As part of this discovery process we’re initiating studies in collaboration with operators and supply chain – an integrated approach will be key to success.

There is an opportunity to dramatically reduce costs and take people out of harm’s way. This will enable the industry to deliver on the Oil & Gas Authority’s strategy of “maximising economic recovery” (MER UK strategy) and export this capability globally.

In addition to our key focus areas, our innovation network and TechX programme are focussed on identifying the technologies and companies that will transform tomorrow.

With all of this in mind, there can be no doubt that technology provides opportunities to transform the safety of the industry even more, while also improving operating performance. 

However, to achieve this requires a collaborative and open approach to adopting new ways of working. Having both regulators and industry onboard and involved from an early stage has been crucial to achieving the progress we’ve already started to see. 

It’s also an exciting proposition for the oil and gas industry workforce of tomorrow – waiting to see how technology really can change our industry for the better and deliver a step change in safety performance.

We have added fresh perspectives each day in the run up to the 30th anniversary of the Piper Alpha tragedy. Read the rest of the series here.

Article by Malcolm Banks

Wells Solution Centre Manager, the Oil & Gas Technology Centre

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