IT/OT convergence helps upstream and midstream operations pivot to meet new realities

World events impose changes on upstream and midstream oil & gas operations, but IT/OT convergence and digitalization helps users adapt

By Denka Wangdi and Darrell Halterman November 24, 2020

As the impacts of COVID-19 and other world events propagate through global industries, many companies are looking closely at how to best optimize asset operation and maintenance. Reduced oil & gas demand have caused upstream well operations, midstream pipeline and storage facilities, and downstream refineries to significantly reduce production. Unfortunately, this is not as simple as turning off a water hose.

Midstream and upstream elements are often operated remotely, introducing logistical challenges for adjusting their operation (Figure 1). Ideally, centrally located users would be able to effectively operate and maintain these remote assets, saving the expense of worker travel and improving safety, but traditional automation platforms may limit these possibilities.

One answer can be found as users begin a digital transformation journey and incorporate industrial internet of things (IIoT) devices and methods. The convergence of the latest IT capabilities with traditional operational technology (OT) automation delivers economic, social, and environmental advantages. Here is how a shifting emphasis towards more remote access to local automation systems makes it possible to realize these and other benefits.

Measurable Improvements

Any operation is defined by various elements throughout the value chain. To prioritize and quantify efforts to improve operations, it becomes necessary to establish key performance indicators (KPIs) of related issues such as:

  • Economic
  • Social
  • Environmental.

At the most basic level, producers want to optimize operations and therefore profits. This requires comprehensive data from field assets and business units, which can then be analyzed to determine current conditions, diagnose problems and develop operational insights. With the right information in hand, users can act to improve efficiency and optimize operations, leading to many benefits.

Efficient producers can deliver quality products to end user consumers at a cost savings. Better operating practices make it safer and easier for operations and maintenance workers to perform their tasks, especially those who can work more effectively from protected locations, a goal especially relevant considering COVID-19. This improved way of life for workers is an example of delivering social benefits while cutting costs.

From an environmental standpoint, closely monitoring and optimizing upstream and midstream processes is necessary to identify and account for any environmental concerns. In some cases, this can require the addition of sensors and other devices over and above what is strictly necessary for nominal control. Preventing environmental incidents avoids penalties for non-compliance. Industry agencies are now enforcing stringent requirements for operators to meet lower emissions.

However, there are usually technical changes necessary to obtaining the source data required to create these KPIs.

A shift is necessary

In the past, many upstream and midstream automation projects have relied upon local instruments and control devices with only limited remote connectivity. The current need to dramatically shift operational priorities has exposed the fact that an even greater integration of remote assets with supervisory control and higher-level analytical systems is necessary to deliver safe and optimal operation under all conditions.

Converging IT-type supervisory and analytical systems with typical OT digital assets has been possible in the past but not easily accomplished. Transferring the right data, reliably and in a timely manner, has often required extensive configuration efforts and expensive communication methods.

A new class of industrial edge controllers is now available and specifically emphasizes converging IT and OT capabilities (Figure 2). This edge computing technology combines the real-time deterministic control functionality of traditional programmable logic controllers (PLCs) with modern general-purpose computing made possible by a Linux operating system.

This type of edge controller platform is crucial to facilitate integration of IT-type analytics with OT-type scalable industrial systems within the oil and gas industries. Edge controllers facilitate digital transformation by helping end users operate their equipment at peak efficiency, giving them new remote access options, and providing improved monitoring of environmental conditions.

Data, analytics and scalability

Digital transformation requires data, which is generally sourced from field locations at the operational “edge.” This data must by analyzed at the edge, on site, in the cloud, or in some combination of these locations. Results and insights can be used automatically by control systems or after review by operators to improve operations.

A scalable solution spanning from the edge up to the cloud is needed to make this possible. Edge controllers fill this role by providing the required functionality in these areas:

  • Data: The necessary data is available in the field, but it is often trapped at the edge. Edge controllers can easily access hardwired inputs/outputs, along with networked data available using standard industrial protocols like HART, OPC UA, and PROFINET.
  • Edge computing: However, the massive quantity of collected data is often not readily transmitted in bulk to higher-level systems without expense and delays. Edge computing can pre-process this data so only refined results need be transmitted.
  • Cloud computing: Cloud-based IT solutions for more extensive analytics and remote visibility are available but require connectivity to deliver the right data at the right time. Edge controllers are optimized for cloud communications using protocols such as MQTT, and OPC UA can also be used in this role.
  • Predictive analytics: Whether performed at the edge, in the cloud, or as a hybrid of both, analysis is necessary for users to unlock an understanding of operations and gain insights for improvements.
  • Closing the loop: An edge controller can be informed by user actions, edge-located analytics, or cloud-based analytics, to adjust parameters and operations for increased efficiency or production planning needs.

Each of these tasks have been possible, but relatively difficult to implement, using traditional automation methods. Edge controllers provide a far more comprehensive solution to perform these tasks, with much of the work carried out on a consolidated platform. Oil & gas facilities are especially good candidates for edge control implementations due to the massive amounts of collected data, remote locations of many assets, and potential substantial gains from even minor operational improvements.

Upstream/midstream considerations

The oil & gas industries have experienced many boom-and-bust cycles, and this trend is expected to continue. In response, better coordination of assets with regards to automation, remote accessibility, and detailed monitoring realized through converged IT/OT technology will enable users to manage production costs at the well and through the pipeline. New projects can incorporate this technology, but it is equally important that existing systems can be easily upgraded (Figure 3).

Wellhead automation advancements can lead to improved bore hole productivity, but only if uptime is maintained. Therefore, this type of automation should be accompanied by designs for higher availability, improved communications, and better diagnostics. Edge controllers offer exactly this, with redundant processors and networking.

Similar automation efficiencies apply to other processes like hydrofracking, separation, treatment, transport and storage. Improved productivity of these elements justifies upgrading portions of the operation, such as transitioning a trucking line to a pipeline. As pipeline companies upgrade existing assets or build new systems, edge controllers enable them to realize better data access and improved coordination among all units. This includes the easy addition of environmental monitoring points which are important, but not related to control.

Edge controllers include oil & gas industry-specific features, such as native AGA calculations, making it easier for users to determine product grades, qualities, and flow rates. They support all popular industrial protocols typically found in the field, meaning edge controllers are readily integrated with upstream and midstream systems.

Another consideration is that automation can help decrease production when necessary, as well as increasing it. For example, during an operational slowdown it may become necessary to shut off or “kill” a well if production cannot be slowed enough to maintain acceptable flow rates. Killing a well is a drastic measure, and the well might be expensive to restart in the future. If operators can effectively slow production and avoid killing a well while reducing fixed costs, they are able to keep more wells in service, even those operating at low production rates.

Convergence yields flexibility

Industries worldwide are currently facing unexpected operational challenges. While some manufacturing industries may be working overtime, many oil & gas upstream, midstream, and downstream operations are struggling with how to slow production and safely deploy personnel.

For the oil & gas industries, setting economic, social and environmental goals are a way to drive progress in these areas, but improved automation is needed to overcome production and quality control challenges.

Moving to a converged IT/OT approach based on edge control platforms is a way to achieve all these goals. Edge control preserves the robust automation needed for oil & gas processes and adds the ability to implement redundancy. Easy access to data and remote connectivity supports analytics in the field, in the cloud, or both — empowering maintenance teams to respond rapidly, and even proactively in some cases. Operations can use this data to fine-tune production and optimize operations systemwide.

The technology step change offered by edge controllers and IIoT technologies leveraging IT/OT convergence helps skilled workers be as effective and supports companies as they proceed on the digital transformation journey.

Author Bio: Denka Wangdi is a marketing leader for Emerson’s machine automation solutions business and is responsible for its portfolio targeting the oil & gas market. Denka has over 15 years of experience in subsea, surface and R&D commercial models. Darrell Halterman is a senior product manager of PACSystems controllers at Emerson’s machine automation solutions business, and he is also responsible for the portfolio’s control solutions modernization strategy. He enjoys working with customers to find the right modernization strategy to enhance their existing control solutions with the latest advancements in automation.