Benefits of wireless for O&G explicated

Streamlined applications running on smaller devices—including iPhones—lead to happier, more productive oil-industry workers.

By Sidney Hill, Jr. March 22, 2017

There’s no question about it: we’ve gone mobile. Wherever you go people are using smartphones or tablets to check email, connect to social media or scan news headlines-tasks that just a few years ago, required a laptop or PC.

This ability to access and share information anytime from anywhere is among the primary reasons oil & gas companies are incorporating mobile technologies into their operations.

In fact, global consulting firm Accenture contends mobile adoption is currently a top-three technology priority for oil & gas companies because of its potential to address many of the industry’s systemic challenges. Accenture presented that argument in a paper it published in conjunction with enterprise software supplier SAP.

The paper, titled "Mobile solutions for oil and gas companies. Enterprise mobility: a transformation opportunity," argues that the industry’s many unique challenges-such as price volatility, heavy regulation and operations that span wide and diverse geographic areas-make having access to real-time information vital, which in turn makes mobile technology particularly valuable.

Without up-to-the-minute information about all their resources, Accenture argues, oil & gas companies are "unable to leverage their people and assets as efficiently as they should, and this inefficiency has a negative impact on productivity."

Technology suppliers also recognize the potential value mobile solutions can bring to oil & gas operations, and they are responding with a host of industry-specific applications.

Accenture argues that these solutions are further increasing the value of mobile technology for oil & gas companies by making it easier for individual workers to both access and share information.

"A wide variety of mobile applications can now be deployed across engineering and operations—including drilling, well management and environmental, health and safety," Accenture states in its mobile oil & gas solutions paper. "By enabling the seamless flow of information—whenever and wherever it is needed most—the technologies now available have effectively closed the decision-making loop, going beyond mere data-capture to include real-time analysis and response in the field."

Two-way communication

Because the current generation of mobile technology also can easily handle two-way communication, field personnel can send data back to enterprise systems that can be used for longer-term analysis and process improvement.

"Until recently, the primary use [of mobile technology] had been to get information out into the hands of field personnel," the Accenture paper notes. "Now, companies are attaching greater importance to the inward flow of information to data-driven enterprise systems such as enterprise-resource planning (ERP), enterprise-asset management (EAM), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and supply-chain management (SCM)."

Oil & gas companies are using this new generation of mobile solutions to support a wide range of tasks—from managing work orders and parts inventories related to equipment maintenance, to monitoring equipment status and filing inspection and regulatory compliance reports.

There is simple logic behind the adoption of this technology. It’s much easier to review and record readings via the screen of a mobile device than it is to carry and keep track of a paper notebook, or even a laptop computer. That makes workers happier, and ultimately more productive.

Both workers and management also seem to be responding positively to the approach many technology suppliers are taking when it comes to designing mobile oil & gas solutions. Rather than developing solutions based on assumptions about what these companies and their workers want and need, technology suppliers are now more prone to go out into the field to assess those needs first-hand. In most cases, they then will build solutions tailored to the needs of that specific company rather than taking the traditional approach of developing a generic application and trying to sell it to multiple customers. 

User context drives design

"We want to solve problems that are worth solving," declared Gaurav Khandelwal, CEO of ChaiOne, in explaining that supplier’s development approach. "It starts with our strategy group, which consists of individuals who are trained in being empathetic to peoples’ frustrations and stresses. We send them into refineries, into the fields and onto rigs to get a sense of the business problems as they exist on the ground."

Sometimes the team discovers a problem can be solved simply by updating decades-old business processes rather than installing new technology. When technology is required, ChaiOne assigns a business analyst to review the situation and calculate the potential financial return the company can expect from solving the problem.

"We always want to quantify the cost before designing a solution," Khandelwal said. "Then we design a solution that accounts for the context in which it will be used." That context includes not only the data that users will be viewing or exchanging, but also the environment in which they will be working.

This focus on user context has made interface design a top priority for most suppliers of industrial-mobile solutions. "The interface is always designed around the user," Khandelwal explained. "If we know a person may have to go out at 4:00 am to respond to SCADA system alerts, we’re not going to make them look at a white background. We’ll give them a dark background with lighter lettering that will be easier to read in the dark. If the user is a welder, we will equip them with a smart watch instead of a smartphone or tablet so their hands can be free while performing that job."

This approach resulted in the design of a system for Weatherford, an oil-field services company, that reduced well downtime and boosted operator productivity by 100%, per Khandelwal.

When Weatherford initially engaged ChaiOne, its goal was to simply mobilize a desktop application that was monitoring oil-field production for hundreds of Weatherford customers. Many of those customers were unhappy because the desktop system was frequently issuing SCADA alarms that operators only became aware of when they returned from the field hours later. 

Beyond the easy fix

While simply issuing all operators mobile devices with alarm capabilities seemed like an easy fix for this problem, ChaiOne preceded with its normal method of sending its strategy team into the field to assess the situation.

"We talked with a dozen of [Weatherford’s] customers in the field," Khandelwal said. "We found that in many cases, the alarms weren’t significant, and didn’t necessarily require an immediate response. We also found that in many other cases, there was an operator nearby when an alarm was triggered who could have responded and solved the problem quickly if they had known about the alarm."

Using that information, ChaiOne developed a mobile app that gives operators better insight into which alarms are most critical. This allows the operator nearest to the location where a critical alarm is triggered to respond immediately while also letting other operators know the problem is being handled. The app also helps operators map their daily rounds so they are certain they are going to locations that are most in need of maintenance—and most prone to trigger critical alarms—first. This is how the system both reduced well downtime and boosted operator productivity.

The Alyeska Pipeline Service Company’s method of solving a similar problem shows how recent advances in technology have made it easier to incorporate mobile applications into the oil & gas ecosystem.

Alyeska, which has managed the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System since the 1970s, also was struggling with the question of how to best respond to SCADA alarms. It turned to a company called Transpara, which sells what has been described as "a lightweight business-intelligence tool."

This system, called Visual KPI, reads data from operational systems, such as SCADA and data historians, and presents it in a form that people who don’t typically work with those systems daily can understand, according to Robert Hylton, Transpara’s vice president of products. "After we read the data, we decorate it for the purposes of visualization, organization, analysis and alerting," Hylton said. "Decorating data can be as simple as converting a raw value into a KPI so that the viewer knows whether that represents a good or bad condition."

Visual KPI has been described as a lightweight business-intelligence tool, Hylton says, that’s geared toward helping operations personnel understand conditions in their specific areas at a given point in time rather than providing information for in-depth process analysis.

Transpara calls its system lightweight because it runs in a web browser rather than on a backend server linked to a database, which is how most SCADA systems and data historians operate. Browser-based systems are supposed to be viewable on any device with an internet connection, but sometimes the data can be skewed on different screens.

Hylton says Transpara enhanced Visual KPI’s portability by using responsive design techniques in building its user interface. That means the application automatically adjusts to fit whatever screen it’s viewed on at a given moment-whether it’s a large monitor on the wall of a control center, desktop computer or smartphone.

"Users don’t have to worry about what the application will look like on the screen," Hylton says. "The software does that all for them."

Alyeska adopted Visual KPI as a means of sharing the information that was triggering alarms, particularly during non-business hours, across the enterprise. That was critical when engaged in endeavors where the person nearest to the location of the alarm might have to travel 300 miles to solve the problem.

Alyeska said the widespread data-sharing this system enables helped cut its annual operating costs by $1.5 million by allowing it to detect and solve problems quicker, in addition to reducing the number of times it had to dispatch workers to conduct repairs during off-shift hours. 

iPhones for everyone?

Even larger suppliers with a history of building off-the-shelf applications are leveraging recent technology advances to develop custom mobile solutions for oil & gas companies. Two examples are IBM and SAP, both of which have formed partnerships with Apple to develop mobile oil & gas applications on the iOS platform.

"The iOS platform offers a powerful proposition for application developers," said Santosh Mulayath, an associate partner in IBM’s chemicals and petroleum business. "The devices and operating system are all well-integrated because they are developed by the same company. They’re also well-maintained. The usability is high and the platform is secure."

Mulayath says the ability to use native iOS features such as global-positioning systems (GPS) and location services also enhances the platform’s appeal to both developers and users of mobile oil & gas applications.

"We have developed more than 100 industry-specific solutions for oil & gas companies," Mulayath said, "and work hard to tailor these solutions for individual clients and integrate them into their environments."

Some of those solutions extend the reach of IBM’s widely used Maximo asset-management system to mobile users, but others pull data from other vendors’ products, including SCADA and data historians.

Likewise, SAP has built iOS-based solutions that pull data from its own widely used asset-management platform, as well as systems from other vendors.

To a great extent, the security inherent in Apple’s closed ecosystem has made this type of development possible by lowering resistance to the introduction of consumer-oriented technology in an industry in which companies historically have gone to great lengths to protect corporate data.

This shift in attitude also comes at a critical time for the industry, as large numbers of experienced workers are retiring and being replaced by a generation that grew up with mobile phones and expects to use the same types of devices in their work.

"Customers today are less interested in the technical side of the products; they’re more attentive to the overall user experience-how seamless the interface is, and how easy it is for them to reach their goal," said Ken Evans, vice president and global head of oil & gas at SAP. "Recognizing this imperative, SAP has turned to strategic partners like Apple to deliver solutions that meet the technical and visual needs of industries, and the oil & gas sector is no exception."

Evans also believes we’re still at the beginning stages of the industry’s mobile revolution. "Well-designed mobile solutions should assist oil & gas companies with meeting their technical requirements in a way that maximizes agility and ease-of-use," he said. "That’s why I believe we will continue seeing this shift towards consumer-type mobile devices and solutions."

Sidney Hill Jr. is a graduate from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He has been writing about the convergence of business and technology for more than 20 years.

Places to start:

ChaiOne: 

Transpara: 

SAP: 

IBM: