An engineering imperative: Integrating operations into design

To gain operational readiness and improve asset data builds for new facilities, oil and gas companies look beyond simple data handoff to collaborative methods and hub solutions that more effectively bridge the worlds of plant design and operations.

By Roberto Michel February 4, 2015

The handoff of data from facility design to the world of operations and maintenance (O&M) is more important than ever in oil and gas, given that the industry is coming off a record year for projects. Upstream capital investment was up 18% in 2013 to $720 billion. However, with costs escalating and energy prices down, profitability is declining, according to research from IHS.

The upshot is that not only are many new assets coming online, but the industry now faces a growing margin squeeze. Combined, these trends elevate the importance of a smooth, accurate transfer of data from engineering to operations to maximize productivity for new assets. 

Decades ago, the “handoff” used to be just that—an abrupt transfer of documents and data from engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) firms or other contractors to owner/operators. Today, the handoff has become a process, with new supporting technologies such as Web-based hubs for engineering and asset master data management, and formats for sharing design data. Solutions such as these are helping industry companies such as super-major Shell and QGC, an Australian natural gas explorer and producer, improve handoff processes. Additionally, EPCs and owner/operators can follow the ISO 15926 standard as a base model for information exchange as part of handoff. 

There are multiple benefits to a smooth handoff, according to Ralph Rio, a research director with analyst firm ARC Advisory Group. “Getting the necessary information so that you can properly run and maintain your assets is important for asset uptime, asset longevity, and the operational performance of the plant,” said Rio. “If the handoff issue is not handled well, all of these objectives tend to degrade, but if the handoff is done smoothly, not only can you start off new operations more effectively, you have a basis for further improvement.”

The end result is that owner/operators have found ways to get better data into their enterprise asset management (EAM) systems, the key systems to execute plant maintenance. However, the handoff challenge is complex. There are many entities involved in major projects, multiple software systems to pull data from, and while the days of paper-based handoffs are largely gone, there are key collaborative steps, where engineers on both the design and operations side of the equation must engage in effectively.

Evolving methods

John Sanins, senior director of solutions management for Bentley Systems, a provider of software for the design, construction, and operations of infrastructure, mentioned that over the decades, there has been much progress on the handoff issue. In the days before CAD, the handoff was “paper-borne,” he said, and usually involved sifting through documents and data duplication.

The evolution of 2D and 3D CAD systems that could hold supporting data helped the industry move away from paper-based handoffs, added Sanins, but owner/operators still faced interoperability issues between CAD systems used by EPCs. During the past decade, EPCs came up with Web-based hubs to more easily pass models, data and documents to owner/operators, Sanins observed, but with multiple EPCs working on big projects, the asset owners still had a need for a central-information management platform combining engineering and asset data.

“The challenge of owner/operators has been to find a way to bring all of this data into a single consistent environment that could be used by operations and maintenance…One approach now gaining adoption is the implementation of a central information store bridging the gap between engineering and operations,” said Sanins.

The hub concept makes sense for handover because the challenge spans a complex mix of contractors and systems, said Greg Dee, president of Hubhead Corp. For large capital projects, said Dee, there are EPCs, equipment vendors, process control providers, and in some cases, third-party firms that assist with the asset data build. There also may be a need to gather data from multiple operations systems such as spare parts management and asset performance management. A hub acts as a staging area to consolidate information.

Once data is gathered, owner/operators also need efficient ways to edit data, correlating it with any necessary documents and drawings, and creating task lists

3D visualization and data management solutions can be used to visualize engineering data and associate data such as piping and instrumentation (P&ID) diagrams with the views, said Mark Pyatt, a senior director for SAP who leads its operational integrity initiative for oil and gas. “It really consolidates all of your information for operational simplification,” said Pyatt.

Training is another way that Web-based visualization and data management aids readiness. Users can tap the solution for training on new assets, and some oil field services companies use it as a training aid for drilling and downhole casing procedures.

“It’s a great way to depict assets and show how they go together, come apart, with ties to standard operating procedures (SOPs) and safety steps that should be followed,” said Pyatt.

The people factor

There is consensus that technology alone can’t meet the handoff challenge. The companies which excel at handoffs tend to be those that combine technology with organizational methods such as operational readiness groups that work with EPCs on handoffs so that the challenge becomes an interdisciplinary process.

“Absolutely, the major owner/operators have established operational readiness teams,” said Dee. “Their job is to make sure everything is ready to go.”

Industry companies are embracing the operational readiness concept. At Williams, a provider of energy infrastructure including natural gas pipelines, input from the O&M group is seen as a critical component of the design and construction process, according to Wayne Gatlin, manager of facility design and drafting.

“The O&M groups are responsible for operating and maintaining a facility for its lifetime,” Gatlin said. “A key component of that is to utilize operational experience and insight during the design phase, working the EPC groups to ensure plant, station, and/or pipeline design and construction facilitates long-term operability.”

Some companies employ phase gate methods for capital projects in which the next phase of a project can’t move forward until designated issues are resolved at the current phase. According to Rio, methods like phase gate, and participation by operational readiness teams in design projects, contribute to handoff success.

“There is a significant people factor involved in this handoff issue,” said Rio. “Yes, you are transferring some data about new infrastructure, but you are also transferring information on how to best use and maintain it. Someone has to understand how to operate and maintain the plant.”

Doug Gant, director of performance technology with Fluor, an EPC that also offers maintenance and project management services, agrees handoffs should be viewed from a readiness perspective. “It’s a process, with the aim being operational readiness,” said Gant.

In many cases, O&M experts with owner/operators or EPCs take part in design reviews, making sure needs such as documentation for SOPs and spare parts are addressed earlier on. “Optimally, it’s a process in which the design process has nested, embedded resources to represent the interests and needs of operations and maintenance,” said Gant.

This ongoing exchange works in the other direction too, in that reliability data should head back to designers. According to Gant, some companies use reliability, availability, maintainability (RAM) modeling techniques and gather other data on failure trends to ensure that new plant designs make use of the most reliable equipment.

Equipment performance and reliability data has always been needed and desired by the design teams, according to Roy Whitt, senior VP and general manager for Asset Answers with Meridium, a provider of asset performance management solutions. According to Whitt, In the days before PCs, when pneumatic instrumentation was predominant, engineers would gather data from individual instrument charts, manual operator logs, and field notes to understand primary parameters such as pressure, temperature, and flow, as well as secondary criteria like inspection results, and anecdotal information from shift reports.

This manual effort typically only came into play when working on major new project designs. With the advent of digital instrumentation and distributed control systems, data became more readily available through process historians, and was applied to a broader set of projects, though still fairly sizable in scope. “Practices were inconsistent and the analyses were very dependent on individuals doing the design work,” he said.

Today’s computing power and low-cost data storage allows engineers to gather and analyze much more data, but procedures to take advantage of those analyses are still being refined.

“The key problem now is being able to take the plethora of data available and make sense of it—with confidence that a resultant analysis is accurate enough on which to base a decision,” Whitt said. “Key information still includes primary parameters to define the ‘operating envelope’ or ‘integrity operating window.’ Reliability information, such as mean time between failure (MTBF) as well as availability by equipment type and manufacturer, can lead to better selection of equipment.”

– Roberto Michel is a freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years experience as an editor with business-to-business publications.

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