Engineering analytics can instill confidence in innovative solutions

Examine equipment and its functions within a system and resist the urge to continue going with the flow when it comes to gathering data.

By Collin Gaskill December 5, 2017

Offshore energy exploration and production requires operations supported by equipment that succeeds in the earth’s most complex and challenging environments. Like any high-technology industry, offshore energy continuously explores new avenues to reduce costs and increase safety through equipment performance advances and system operational improvements.

However, given the challenges arising from the locations and conditions faced, an industry-wide conundrum results. Innovative efforts to improve operational performance are confronted with strong and deep-rooted resistance to deviating from current standard operating procedures.

This resistance follows from the high level of risk involved and the fact there is little room for failure with respect to offshore energy production. The result is stringent requirements and high entry barriers for new equipment designs. Offshore operators must have high, if not complete, confidence that new designs operate as expected and outperform incumbent options.

Equipment suppliers are valued based on their ability to deliver with confidence innovative solutions for advancing offshore capabilities. Relying on strong analytical and empirical data presents a conclusive qualification basis throughout equipment-design life cycles. It can be the difference between failure and success of new equipment design implementation in offshore energy projects. 

On certainty

Confidence is the quality or state of being certain. For offshore equipment and systems engineering, being certain is a function of several factors: design optimization, performance qualification, solution achievement, and capabilities advancement. Confidence of success means overcoming challenges related to high pressures, vast temperature swings, large magnitudes of complicated loading, corrosive environments, extensive performance lives, and little-to-no opportunity for maintenance.

However, this certainty of success is achievable through innovative collaboration amongst those that manufacture equipment and those that operate it. Joint development projects have a long history in the oil & gas industry, bringing together expertise from the engineering disciplines, operations, materials science, and manufacturing.

Offshore technology advances almost always originate in response to current issues. Day-to-day operations reveal improvement areas in equipment design or systems operation. Operators and contractors typically source equipment from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), relying on their industry expertise. Collaborative relationships amongst operators, contractors, and equipment designers prove invaluable when they can initiate a process that moves solutions from concept to reality, and ultimately field deployment.

An OEM’s ability to effectively communicate technical detail to operators and contractors, including material properties and manufacturing processes and how these can be leveraged in improving equipment designs and applications, sets the stage for going from field-identified issues to fully-qualified solutions.

Equally valuable is the equipment-manufacturer’s experience of how its equipment functions within an integrated holistic system. Very rarely do pieces of equipment operate in isolation. Changes to one area inevitably result in overall-performance variances, internal and external loading changes, and subsequent strain and stress.

By understanding root causes of operator-identified issues and the impact of specific equipment modifications on the overall system’s success, OEMs contribute to solution development targeted at real, current issues. 

Concept solution feasibility

A development project’s early stages, following issue identification and classification, is an exploration for remedies. Communication between OEM engineering/manufacturing teams and client engineering/operation teams is crucial.

All parties must ensure efforts are focused on true underlying issues to construct and deploy solutions that perform at expected levels throughout an installation’s life cycle. Cross-company communication successfully guides the feasibility stage, as performance targets typically are fluid while the solution is being defined.

Equipment manufacturer expertise in numerical modeling analysis and operations simulation alleviates the feasibility assessment burden, allowing economic, accurate identification of possible solutions. Local finite-element analysis (FEA) enables companies to investigate materials, design, size, and potential location to optimize solution performance. Coupling local FEA design with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and global FEA, allows engineering teams to examine the interaction between the solution and its eventual offshore environment.

An understanding is gained of how equipment performance is influenced by: 1) hydrodynamic current and wave loading; 2) transferred dynamic strain from other areas of the system; and 3) loading resulting from installation, operation, and potential equipment retrieval. Results arising from analysis and simulation are easily understood by engineering, operations, and contracting teams, leading to effective decision making.

At this stage, analytical tools for structural and hydrodynamic assessment instill confidence that concept solutions are achievable, and with further refinement will deliver an optimized solution.

Detailed product engineering

The effectiveness of augmenting manufacturing expertise with analytical modeling becomes even clearer in the detailed design phase. Understanding the underlying physics driving equipment and system performance, gained through numerical modeling, supports targeted modifications. Manipulating controlling design parameters to refine original concepts defines the optimization process.

Material selection, geometric configuration, fastening mechanisms, loading paths, and other equipment physical attributes are investigated to create the right combination of performance, simplicity, and cost. Study of the fluid structure interaction delineates hydrodynamic performance in terms of lift, drag, shielding, and resulting structure vibrations or oscillations. This insures introduction of new equipment or technologies don’t exceed any prior defined limits on system abilities.

When new technology developments are executed without the control of numerical modeling and detailed design, engineers run risks of severely over-engineering components. This can result in unnecessary cost, excess weight, and unrefined geometries, potentially rendering a solution ineffective. Worst-case scenario, equipment is under-engineered due to some critical aspect of equipment/system/environment interaction being overlooked during the design phase, leading to potential failure in the field.

Equipment design and preliminary qualification testing applications give OEMs a suite of information required for a strong level of confidence from operators and contractors that the engineered design will perform as intended and is worth a higher level of investment to bring into production. The value of these studies and refinements to design, being performed internally and wholly by OEMs, is that the proposed changes and optimizations are grounded in reality.

Continuously throughout the front-end engineering design cycle, changes and improvements are scrutinized against the implications they have to the efforts as a whole to bring the solution to market. Consequences to manufacturing ability, cost, material qualification, transportation logistics, end usability, and most importantly system performance are examined at a level of detail reflecting the collection of experiences in engineering design, manufacturing, and project management available to OEMs who invest in teams with these integrated skills and knowledge.

This provides a high level of certainty to the joint development team that the issues identified in the field by product end users have been remedied adequately by the equipment developer in a manner that will pass the high barriers to entry for new technologies typical of the offshore industry. 

Qualifications wanted

Confidence in the newly-designed technology and the ability of the equipment to deliver required performance is solidified in the qualification stage of the joint technology development project cycle. The ability to deliver a correct and conclusive performance qualification assessment is unique to OEMs that have the internal capacity of constructing testing methodologies that validate and verify the previous design work performed by the development team in the earlier stages of the project. Consistency across the collection of results and examination of performance indicators is key, as the gap between the existence of the design in analytical space and a physical prototype model for empirical testing is bridged.

An OEM’s ability to ensure all data acquisition requirements of an oil & gas operator or contractor are satisfied is equally important, as well as necessary for their confidence in the new technology. Cross company communication between engineering teams again plays a vital role, as the verification of design results is qualified by empirical data.

Another prominent difference in the development of new technologies in the offshore energy industry compared to other industries is the requirement for continued involvement of the OEM after delivery and deployment of the new technology solution to the field. This is a trend that is gaining momentum as developments target reservoirs not only deeper below the surface of the water but below the seafloor as well. Differentiation is found again in OEMs who provide life cycle management of their products not only through expert inspection and repair, but through incorporating smart technology and the integration of data into numerical modeling.

As monitoring technology rapidly progresses, the current industry issues shift from the question of how is relevant data going to be collected to what can companies accomplish with the vast amounts of field measurements being obtained. The obvious answer to this question is for OEMs to collate these field measurements and integrate what they are revealing about equipment/system and equipment/environment interactions to further increase performance and longevity of new and developed technologies.

The logical step is to implement the same technical expertise and tools industry-leading OEMs use in front end product optimization and joint technology developments for the management of equipment and the monitoring of performance. This extension of the collaborative relationship between equipment manufactures and operators extends the life of equipment, assists in the avoidance of costly and unnecessary inspections and repairs, and ensures the equipment, truly in need of service, is identified and addressed.

In increasingly challenging environments—both physically and economically—of offshore energy production, the idea of close OEM involvement and cooperation with operators and contractors for equipment management from "cradle to grave" is no longer an exception but the standard. OEMs who develop and evolve internal capabilities to examine equipment performance and progress technological advances, utilizing equally important analytical and empirical approaches, will continue to dominate the market as development partners who can supply the level of confidence required for the qualification of the new generation of offshore technology.

Capabilities advancement

Although the challenging industry conditions over the last few years may have been the catalyst for a number of recent joint technology developments and a resurgence of the appetite for offshore operators and contractors to pursue and accept new and better ways of doing things, a continuation of this standard ultimately is required moving into the future. The easy access reservoirs of the 90’s and early 2000’s are already developed, driving exploration and production companies to eye deeper and more challenging crude oil deposits.

Offshore renewables is a developing technology that utilizes offshore experience, but with most equipment developments being intrinsically new technologies, extensive qualification and performance studies to ensure adequate operational function and safety are required. Continued advancement of capabilities on both fronts—something most people believe mandatory to meet future energy needs of the world—will be accomplished through the collaborative expertise between industry-leading equipment manufactures and companies producing and harvesting offshore energy both from fossil fuels and renewables. 

Closing thoughts

To eschew "business as usual," and equipment and system designs rooted in habit but inadequate for the challenges of the next generation of energy production, collaboration between manufactures and operators will be the key. Equipment manufacturers that react to field-identified challenges, acting as true development partners with operators and contractors through development of technically sound designs, certified by strong analytical and empirical evidence, will push applications into uncharted territory. It will be with the confidence gained through cross-company cooperation and the employment of advanced engineering techniques such as numerical modelling, detailed design, and laboratory testing that optimized equipment designs will be deployed in the energy environments of the future.

Collin Gaskill is a riser analysis engineer with Trelleborg Offshore U.S. Inc.

For more information, please search Oil & Gas Engineering and Control Engineering for editorial content on project management, finite-element analysis, and fluid dynamics.

Original content can be found at Oil and Gas Engineering.