Staying in touch with the well site

Oil & Gas Engineering spoke with Harry Ebbeson, manager of technical services and customer support at PCS Ferguson, to get a better idea about what some of the specifics are for engineers working in the oil and gas industry. Harry paints a multifaceted, in-depth picture of working within 300 ft of the well site.

By Oil & Gas Engineering February 18, 2015

Q: What is your job and primary responsibility?

A: Manger of technical services, customer support for people using PCS Ferguson products in the field, primarily in gas production. Engineering and development for products in the oil and gas industry. I have a team of technical specialists that I work with, and they are part of a larger automation-focused group. PCS Ferguson is a company/brand of Dover Artificial Lift Systems (DoverALS). PCS Ferguson is the result of a merger between Ferguson Beauregard and Production Control Systems (PCS).

Our external customers are the majors, and many independents. Internal clients are our sales reps that sell into the industry. Field services from our Texas location are provided mainly in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, but not limited to these states as Ferguson Beauregard supports operations in the northern energy production fields of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, North Dakota, and Montana of the U.S., and internationally, such as Mexico, Canada, China, and Australia.

PCS Ferguson’s typical area of operations is within 300 ft of the well head: We try to touch every aspect of the production cycle, from pads to injection and extraction. One of these services is plunger lift for liquids removal in gas production.

Specifically, we are a plunger lift, gas lift, chemical injection, general SCADA within the normal production area. How many people do you manage for the field? I mange six people in both the office and field. We are not specifically geographically bound, but we tend to work in the southern states. There are areas of overlap with our compatriots located in Colorado.

Q: How does the sales cycle work?

A: Typically it’s a twofold thing. The salesman is working in the field, directly with the producers, and typically he will sell a plunger lift system, which is an automatic controller, the downhole tools and the plunger, for example. Usually he will handle the entire sale, depending on the installation; if it is more advanced he will enlist our help to engineer out the components of the installation. For example, the equipment we manufacture is SCADA-oriented wireless controllers, wireless remotes, production tools such as plungers, and downhole tools, and these are all part of an 8000 series of controller systems. We never want to operate independent of our sales channels, so we will always bring a salesperson in.

This is not a guy in a suit. He is on-site working, wearing a hard hat, and setting up these systems. He will call us for the more advanced pieces of equipment. A majority of the work is done on an individual basis at the field level.

Q: Is the SCADA product proprietary?

A: All of our controls communicate via ModBus. We chose universal communication software. At one time, Ferguson Beauregard had a proprietary SCADA protocol package for the host, but the combined company (PCS Ferguson) opted to keep a Modbus-based system. Most of our major customers are using Cygnet as a software host. Wonderware has a small portion of the market as well, but Cygnet is the major player. Not surprisingly, Cygnet is a Weatherford company, so we are integrating with a competitor. This is a common occurrence in the industry.

Q: Who is your competition?

A: Weatherford, Well master, Superior products, and the biggest are ABB and Emerson. Those are the major competitors. Dover purchased PCS and merged Ferguson Beauregard because it gave them a much larger presence in the marketplace. The SCADA market is extremely competitive as are other markets such as the waste-water market.

Q: Are you located in a small manufacturing facility?

A: We are more of a satellite engineering and customer support office, but we work in conjunction with our engineering and manufacturing facilities in Colorado.

Q: What regulations and standards affect your job?

A: To give you a better understanding of my background, I worked in air pollution regulation for a local control district for almost 10 years and then almost 20 years with Shell as a major producer, then a SCADA radio manufacturer, and now with PCS Fergus for six years. I may have a broader swath than most people in the business because I have been on both sides of the fence. UL and CSA are the governing bodies that affect us the most. For class and division ratings and getting products certified installed and working in classified atmosphere areas. Our primary focus now is on controlling fugitive emissions. Plunger lifts and oilfields in general have traditionally used field gas supplied actuators-motor valves. Every time one of these devices operates, there is a little gas that is released into the air. While it is only a little bit that is released, when you take about 1,000 wells with two to four motor valves on them, there can be a substantial amount of gas released into the air. We are always working on finding ways to automate valve movements to limit the amount of gas that is released into the air. Most of our controllers use electrically operated latching valves, which are gas controlling valves. We have seen an increasing use of electrically operated valves recently, but since our control systems are solar and battery powered, electrical demand is always a concern. We are also involved with downhole chemical injection to prevent corrosion in the well. We are concerned about ground water pollution and are aware of these regulations. Because we have tank-level measurements, we have to be concerned with tank overflows. These products allow us to assist our customers in being responsible about the information and controls to prevent environmental impact.

Q: Which codes and agencies affect your work the most?

A: UL and CSA. The big issue for us is: Are our products certified to work in explosive environments? If the equipment meets those regulations then, generally speaking, we are good to go. However, our equipment is used by third-party contract producers, and they must ensure that the equipment meets standards that the owner/producer must meet. We are not directly responsible for those, but that’s where the multiple overlapping jurisdictions come into play.

Q: What are some new technologies or processes that you are working with now?

A: Chemical-injection pump systems. Prior to the advent of iChem products, most producers had a small piston pump, solar-powered or battery-powered with a tank full of chemicals. These chemicals would be injected downhole to inhibit corrosion, break up emulsions, etc. The issue was it was a bulk treatment and there was not really any control over the amount of chemicals being injected. We have created a series of algorithms in conjunction with specialized pumps and controllers that manage the amount of chemical injected. It’s not always the case that a little bit of chemical is good and a lot is a whole lot better. You can easily reach the point where a large amount of chemicals does no more good. Therefore, we brought a level of control and understanding to the chemical injection side of things with a solar-powered chemical pump and control system. We have several versions out right now that are accepted in the marketplace and have made a big impact in the past three years.

Imitation is flattery, so we are not the only ones doing this. We are seeing some of our competitors trying to do this, but they don’t have the pump knowledge like PCS Ferguson does, and by being part of a larger company (Dover ALS) with other divisions, we can create in-house, which gives us an edge.

What’s really important is that the algorithms are integrated into the control devices properly. There are many variables that have to be taken into account, such as volume, pressure, production times, overflow, chemical injection, etc. You need to be sure that if you stop production, the chemical injection process is stopped too. You don’t want to waste that expensive chemical, sometimes costing between $100 and $300 per gallon. Generally, the iChem system is paid out before the first quarter is completed.

Q: Are these pumps remotely controlled?

A: 99% of these are remotely SCADA controlled, self-controlled by algorithm and input from the operator.

Q: Looking ahead, over the next five years, what do you see as the major technology or engineering challenge?

A: Scalability is really important, and so is interoperability. You may drill one or two wells one year, and then the next you might drill 10 more on the same pad, so the scalability and interoperability are really important for system integration. The 8000 series of controller products are very scalable products.

Energy is also going to be important: How are you going to power these components? 99.9% of our products are solar powered. Energy harvesting end elements may have some play in the market for us, but they have not gotten to the point where they are fully viable for us.

Furthermore, new standards such as the ISA100 for wireless and IEC standards. Wireless connectivity needs to be considered as well, because if you have 1,000 wells, you don’t want to pay $30-$40 per month per well for a cellular connection. To remedy this, we are working with an OEM radio for SCADA communications. The FCC is reallocating bandwidths and carving the frequency spectrum up, so private radio is something that warrants consideration.

Q: Which IEC standards do you deal with?

A: 61850, 6111s. I don’t have all of the numbers, IEC SCADA protocols are used in the EU but not too much in the U.S. We try to stay up on these and have a broad perspective on things in case one of our international customers has requirements.

Q: How does the company keep up with all these codes and standards?

A: We have some individuals who are tasked with staying up to date with the codes and standards respective to their division or work area. But generally, people tend to stay up because they are always honing their skills. So they bring that back. I use publications such as Control Engineering and others to stay abreast of what is going on, and then I look to see how that might interpret or interpolate into our piece of the business. For example, if someone is using a new protocol in Illinois and that protocol is starting to become widely accepted, then we need to look at that and see if it is going to come our direction.

Part of my role is to look at the marketplace as a whole and then ask our people to scrutinize the specifics, and that’s where I use a lot of trade journals and magazines. We also watch our competitors, too, and see what kinds of moves they are making and how that might affect us. We have a semi-formalized process, but we have a lot of passionate people who keep up on these things.

Q: What do you use as sources?

A: Chemical processing, Pump Magazine, Flow Control, ISA, IHS, America Oil and Gas Reporter Pipeline Journal, and Oil and Gas Journal. 

The thing about the oil and gas industry is that it is a real wedding of conglomerates, companies, and disparate technologies that you would not expect to find in our business. That’s because there are people out there constantly asking the question, “What if I did it this way?”

Q: What is the best part of the job?

A: That’s a hard question because it is very multifaceted. I work with a group of very talented people, and the great thing is we can see the direct results of our work. Helping a customer solve a problem is a rewarding experience, too. Exposure to new technology is really great because we are encouraged to think outside the box, and that is equally rewarding.

Because we are a smaller company, we don’t have to committee things to death before we try them. We are allowed to innovate and implement. Sometimes we fail, and that’s OK as long as it is not too often. Sometimes from the failures come the best innovations. Dover is pretty entrepreneurial on how it manages its subsidiaries.

Q: What is the most challenging part?

A: The cyclical nature of the energy industry. Our customers have knee-jerk reactions to the price of oil without regard to how long the price will be down. You have to plan your company to withstand highs and lows.

The other thing is keeping up with personal technology. "Am I missing a tool that could really help me out in the field?"

In terms of technology, I helped develop some devices back in the 1980s that are still working today. They are akin to a calculator with an auto-start button, but they work and they are paid off and they are making money, so the producers do not want to replace them until they are literally struck by lightning and don’t work anymore.

This is something that manufactures do not understand very well. When they produce something and sell it to a company working in a capital-intensive industry such as oil and gas, the producers expect that unit to work past its payout date ad infinitum. For manufacturers, generally, they would like to see products replaced every five years. But if they don’t have really new and innovative features on them, the energy companies are not going to want to buy it.

There is sometimes a disconnect between what is the latest and greatest and what is truly functional. It’s our job to step in between and say OK, we understand you want all these bells and whistles, but the operator out in the field is not interested in all of that. They want something that is functional and durable and that will survive harsh environments with high or low temperatures.

Q: What is your company doing to recruit and train new employees?

A: We just finished building a training matrix for technicians up to three levels. This range covers a new hire to senior level. We have to keep talent coming. In the group I manage, I have two 30 -somethings, one 40-something, and a few 50-somethings. So I have a full swath of people dealing with the Big Crew Change.

What I have seen over the years is that most companies have downgraded their in-house training, and this has lead to the problem we are facing today of the Big Crew Change. Now that the crisis is encroaching, the companies are waking up and saying, "What are we going to do now?" I feel that trade journals are doing something to address this issue by taking on more mentoring and tutoring approaches to content. The Internet and online training have helped by providing easy access and lower costs.

We have a large population of people who are tech savvy at the user level and though they have that skill, they are usually missing the knowledge of what’s going on inside the device. What we have lost is the ability to understand what goes on inside. The manufacture’s side of the technology is taken as a given. I see this stemming in part from the fact that we don’t have a space race anymore. Engineering has fallen by the wayside, because we are honoring sports figures, big bankers, etc. It isn’t about the doing of the job anymore; it is about the monetary rewards. When I was growing up in the 1960s, it was the space race that got me into technology and into engineering. What’s happened is that we have gotten away from the honorability of professions where you make things with your hands: the blue collar, the technician, the vocation. Society seems to think that if you didn’t get an MBA, then you are not worth anything.

Q: What kinds of information do you look for online or in a trade journal?

A: Things that would append themselves into my side of the business: I am looking for applicability and equipment that has a broader application base. For example, communication orientated, industrial networking—especially in the basics so you can convey it to others. Operating environments are important, too, as the oil and gas industry works in harsh environments and 90% of the industrial control units available today don’t meet the -40 to +60 C temperature range. Most PLCs drop out and automation controls are meant for the plant floor. They just don’t cut it. Energy-conscious products are very important too because we are working in a low-energy environment.

It’s a broad sweep; I will usually read a trade journal three times, once for each kind of avenue I am trying to go down: class division rated, communication product, or controller product. I wish there was a search aggregator tool where it can find items that fit the inputted criteria. I would like a better aggregator to get better results.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I have seven grandchildren, so I spend a lot of time with them. I am a guitar player—bluegrass and other music—have been playing since I was 13 and I built my first guitar and amp. I try to stay healthy and active, and active at church and in the community.

What advice can you offer?

You need to stay hungry. You need to know that you are a vital part of something. You need to keep your skills up. Keep learning. If you are not learning, you are stagnating, and if that’s the case they will toss you out like yesterday’s news. 

Edited by Oil & Gas Engineering. See related stories below.

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.