An O&G services provider’s approach to digital transformation

Reliability and performance gain from IoT edge technology, defined business process and technician experience.

By Kevin Parker December 10, 2021
Steven Abernathy, Archrock senior director. Courtesy: CFE Media and Technology

It’s been said that the midstream oil & gas industry is all about rotating equipment. That involves, most especially, the compressors that increase natural gas pressure by reducing its volume for pipeline transportation to points of use.

Houston-based Archrock is a supplier of natural gas contract compression services and an energy infrastructure company with a pure-play focus on midstream natural gas compression, supplying natural gas compression services throughout the U.S., as well as a supplier of aftermarket parts and services for customer-owned equipment.

Complex products and rapid technology evolution make it a must for all industries to leverage managed service offerings, said management consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., in a recent article, “The services solution for unlocking industry’s next growth opportunity.” It specifically cited the oil & gas industry as being among those most suited to the approach.

Technology drives demand for managed services. It’s also a prime enabler of services. As an equipment-centric services provider, Archrock must deliver to customers the maximum throughput of natural gas possible, using the latest means to optimize asset reliability and performance, while controlling costs.

“We’ve been working toward  this blending of telemetry, advanced analytics, workforce development and other enabling technologies, with an accelerated pace since 2019,” said Steven Abernathy, an Archrock senior director. “It needs to saturate the entire enterprise because it is truly transformational.”

IoT is an acronym for the internet of things, i.e., the incorporation of sensors, processors and software into physical objects. It allows data exchange among objects and devices over the Internet or other communication networks. The work Archrock has done included introduction of an IoT edge device on the compressor, use of an IoT platform and cloud computing, and incorporation of self-service and Big Data analytics.

“Using data coming off our machines with other contextual operational data allows for improved equipment performance and reliability. Doing it, however, involves more than simply installing sensors or bolting data collection equipment on a compressor,” Abernathy said. “We’ve revamped our business and operations systems internally to take full advantage of the opportunity.”

For example, data governance issues complicate digitalizing legacy installations. For decades, personnel in industrial environments, regardless of industry, often labelled I/O tag data to suit their own preferences, with little consistency across platforms and users. Those inconsistencies, unless resolved, can drive up the costs of achieving the benefits of Big Data.

Yet, even in a time of increasingly remote operations, compressor operations remain hands-on. Gas compressors in midstream oil & gas are subjected to a range of environmental and gas condition variables. Advances in technology notwithstanding, Abernathy emphasizes the real differentiator is an experienced and well-developed workforce.

Considerations involved

Another aspect of Archrock’s work included gathering data at compressor sites more comprehensively than before, transferring it to the cloud and applying some measure of analytics to it. The relevant detail delivered in context can inform Archrock personnel.

“It’s more complex than that, though,” Abernathy said. “In our case a platform must manage data coming in from 3,000 to 4,000 compressor packages, with dozens of sensors for each package transmitting data back to us on a pretty frequent basis. We have to equip ourselves with the right technology internally, not just on the equipment. We have to ingest that data in a meaningful way. We’ve done a complete re-architecture of our company IT platforms to accommodate this transformation.”

The intersection of process control and information technology delivers value across the compressor fleet. “Transferring knowledge is a critically important to reducing trips and time on location. A big part of our plan has been building processes that enable this transfer, so technicians avoid prolonged troubleshooting or replacing parts unnecessarily, which is not uncommon in a lot of industries,” Abernathy said.

It’s not enough to just transfer data from the site to the cloud and then run analytics. In some cases, the latencies involved with cloud computing don’t allow doing that effectively. That’s why edge computing is an important complement to the cloud. Moreover, answers are wanted where technicians are present — whether at home, an Archrock shop or another customer’s location.

“By means of portal technology, they look at what’s going on with a compressor package before they leave home. Long term, as we accumulate fleetwide data we’ll become even more predictive and able to anticipate challenges before they manifest themselves,” said Abernathy. “We’re dealing with scheduled events rather than calling people out at two in the morning. It improves quality of life for our employees. Safety is improved. For customers, throughput is improved through better performance and reliability of Archrock’s compression services equipment.”

Always on matters

“It’s also important that compressor packages be able to run 24/7, because 80% of the wear and tear on a compressor package comes from starting and stopping it,” Abernathy explained.

By supporting preventative maintenance with increased condition monitoring, Archrock can optimize maintenance cycles. Over time, predictive and prescriptive maintenance become a bigger influencing factor.

“We know that you don’t want to shut that machine down more than you have to. If a unit would normally be shut down for maintenance six times a year and we can now do it only four times a year because of a better understanding of compressor fleet performance, it’s significant. Spread over a fleet of this size, that’s a huge impact,” Abernathy said.

Value comes from achieving predictive insights into the causes of compressor upsets. Certain trends are identified by applying analytics to a data set. Those can be shown to subject matter experts. The root cause might not be the compressor package itself but the environment in which it operates.

“We’re better able to predict what might seem a random component failure. The next time the equipment is down for maintenance we can address the anticipated problem ahead of time. We’re already learning a lot,”  Abernathy said.

Process optimization

Maintenance, or reliability, is one side of a coin. The flip side is process optimization. “You want to run a compressor package close to full load,” said Abernathy. “The more you drag it down, the less complete your combustion cycle becomes. Applying our new technology, we discover more rapidly if a compressor package becomes oversized as a result of decreasing gas volumes at the inlet, for example, or if the compressor package is going down due to other operating, gas or site conditions.”

With the greater amount of data collected, decisions come faster. By analyzing the data, Archrock’s field service technicians are more proactive and trips to the unit are optimized.

“We’ve modernized some of our fleet that was still analog,” Abernathy said. “With the IoT device installed on the unit we put analytics not just in the cloud but at the site as well, letting the installed device perform the computation, enabling decision-making. Given the latencies involved, you could never do that with big data analytics in the cloud.”

Abernathy said Archrock found value by equipping well-trained and highly experienced field service technicians and data analysts with a few good tools that enable what he calls “citizen data science.” The emphasis has also been on teaching field operations people to monitor dashboards for real-time operation.

“There’s also value having data science experts and data engineers work with the subject matter experts on the Big Data analytics as well as at the edge. We’re harvesting the low-hanging fruit while enabling a more comprehensive approach,” Abernathy said.

Final words

For Archrock, digital transformation is better way to support employees responsible for operating, maintaining and repairing its equipment, just because it is they who best benefit from information about what they know best: the equipment and the conditions in which it’s used.

It might be described as a distributed model with standardization centralized. The focus is working with the teams in the field, building use cases that enable more insightful analytics and additional automation.

Increases in reliability and performance of Archrock’s equipment equates to more natural gas throughput for Archrock customer. Not least are improvements in quality of life for technicians who thereby spend less time on the road and more with their families.


Kevin Parker
Author Bio: Senior contributing editor, CFE Media