Digitalization has been one of the keywords of 2019 in the Oil & Gas sector: Big-Data, Cloud Computing, IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) are new terms for an industry well known for being conservative in nature, and most of the digital initiatives taken to date have a limited impact on existing operations. However, it is expected that the potential disruption of digitalization in Oil and Gas will gradually transform the way we work at a scale never seen before. At the forefront of this coming change is 3D visualization & imaging, in all its forms.
In the early 1980s, Exploration was the first branch of the industry to adopt 3D seismic surveys to collect geological data, and 3D acquisition technologies are today the primary tool for E&P companies, giving full access to a wealth of information about reservoir characteristics like pressures, depths and payout potential. Even though it revolutionized the drilling industry by proving the economics of a rather risky process, 3D imaging failed to breakthrough at a broader range, remaining for years an obscure technology understood by geophysicists only.
Another notable exception is the design of hydrocarbon and process-related facilities, which relies heavily on 3D modelling to help engineers create concepts of complex structural systems, equipment & piping layouts compliant with industrial codes and standards. By evaluating additional front-end engineering designs (FEED) in-depth and by screening process alternatives, it is now possible to offer to the plant owner a 3D representation of the proposed facility using an early, conceptual process scope. When capital expenditures (CAPEX) can easily reach billions of dollars, it is critical to optimize development costs and avoid design errors that can be too costly to rectify later during construction and/or operations. The same 3D model can be used for maintenance purposes throughout the lifespan of the plant, providing engineers with useful information while planning modifications, upgrades, and turnaround.
The rise of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)
Using computing power to create a simulated environment on a head-mounted display, VR was until recently a gimmick confined to the gaming world and a niche market inside the video games industry. It is now seen as a technology with a considerable potential reaching across a wide spectrum of sectors. Healthcare, Education, Construction, Architecture & Automotive are poised to be transformed by the rise of new immersive visualization tools. Specific applications developed for processing plants and geared towards the Oil & Gas industry are available, and several startups are working on offering solutions going far beyond the basic visual approach. VR can offer a unique learning and training experience for employees in a safe and controlled environment. A virtual world will enable new trainees to learn from their mistakes, and eliminates the probability of making the same error in the real world, an error that could have an adverse impact on production, equipment or in the worst case on human life.
VR users can sharpen their skills on a wide array of simulated, interactive scenarios ranging from the basic operator round to the complex response in an emergency case, performing simple preventive maintenance, taking apart a 1:1 scale industrial compressor or flying above a fully detailed refinery.
However, wearing a VR headset still leave the user blind to the current world, and this is where the concept of Augmented Reality (AR) comes into place. In contrast to VR, Augmented Reality takes the current reality and enhance it by adding computer-generated visual elements to your surrounding by projecting interactive holograms onto your field of vision. And this is probably the most attractive option for plant operators: Imagine having access on the spot to a wealth of documentation, pulling up P&IDs, a data-sheet or SAP order just by looking at a pump or collecting field readings with pre-set historical data and alarms settings. Competency assessments would also benefit by standardizing the learning curve, and connecting field trainees to their mentor who can monitor every movement and action of the operator. Start-up/shutdown procedures can be simulated at a high level of realism without impacting production.
Notably, the use of commercial, consumer-level electronics is ruled out, because safety concerns are deeply entrenched in O&G and may come at odds with the practical ramifications of digitalization in the field. Intrinsically safe instruments are the norm, and AR wearable, like any other electronics used in hazardous environments, should present zero risks of ignition around explosive atmospheres, even with a faulty or defective device.
While the necessary shift in mindset towards digital's value has yet to be made, the big majors are pushing for the adoption of innovative solutions, and although the drive behind change in the Oil & Gas industry will always be profitability, it is clear that the digital disruption is happening and will deeply transform our industry.
Sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.