Norway’s oil and gas major, Equinor, made headlines in October 2018 following its launch of the world’s first fully automated wellhead platform, the Oseberg H. Here, Claudia Jarrett, United States country manager of parts supplier, EU Automation, explains the challenges of unmanned automation in the oil and gas sector.

The Oseberg H is completely unmanned, with no living quarters — not even a restroom. Rather than requiring workers on site, it is remotely operated from the central depot, with manual maintenance carried out once or twice a year.

Since the launch, the United Kingdom is working to ‘go beyond’ Norway by developing an unmanned production facility on a floating structure. It’s ambitious but represents the wider appeal of automating the entire oil supply chain.

Equinor’s platform has the bare essentials and was delivered far below the original budget, but the platform has a mammoth predicted volume capacity of 110 million barrels of oil equivalent. The company describes this as ‘simplification in practice’.

Built using the motto ‘think big, build small’, the structure was developed with unmanned production in mind from the outset. What else can be learned from the Oseberg H approach?

Clearly, developing a structure like this is not as easy as ripping out restrooms and sending workers to the main depot. For existing oil and gas facilities, retrospectively transforming aging sites into completely unmanned structures would not be financially wise. Luckily, automation strategies aren’t this black and white, but are shades of grey.

There is a complete spectrum of automation available for oil and gas facilities, from complete manual control, to unmanned automation like Oseberg H. Facilities can sit anywhere along these two extremities, and gain automation advantages with relatively small investments.

Equinor acknowledges that Oseberg H was built using established technologies. This tech is used to monitor every aspect of the platform. For instance, SCADA software would be used to continuously monitor operations and detect faults and anomalies. Should a leak be identified, for instance, the system could raise an alarm which automatically alerts maintenance engineers. Using remote monitoring technology, the fault location can be identified immediately. This isn’t new technology and is therefore accessible to much smaller oil and gas facilities.

Equinor’s motto of ‘think big, build small’ reinforces the concepts of small changes making a huge difference to operational efficiencies. What that small change should be however, will depend on the individual gaps and needs of the business in question. Going back to the example in question, this could be as simple as connecting PLCs to SCADA software.

To advance this, the SCADA software could also incorporate additional data points in the facilities, from retrofit sensors, energy consumption meters and market forecasts. This interface could then be made accessible from mobile devices, so that processes can be monitored and controlled from a remote location. Hey presto, suddenly the facility in question isn’t a million miles away from the Equinor approach.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. As businesses creep towards the fully automated side of the spectrum, they are likely to be faced with a few hurdles. A major challenge is the fear of cybersecurity breaches.

Cybersecurity will always be a concern for business owners — particularly in high risk industries, like oil and gas. However, many of today’s SCADA software providers have stringent protection in place with data encryption, firewalls and consistent patch management.

General risk management is another valid concern of automated operations. In the event of a malfunction, being unmanned could increased the time it takes for maintenance and this concern is heightened due to the aging infrastructure in these facilities and the risk of obsolescence.

Should an essential part break down, replacements that are compatible with existing systems and legacy equipment may have been discontinued. For example, a buyer may wish to purchase new PLCs or HMIs that work with a specific brand of motors or pumps. However, as they are no long manufactured, these parts may be considerably hard to find.

In these instances, establishing relationships with automation parts suppliers, such as EU Automation, will prove crucial. Particularly for businesses with targets to minimise maintenance downtime on an unmanned site.

Equinor has certainly set a great example for automation in the oil and gas sector, but other businesses don’t have to aspire to complete automation to reap the benefits. Even the smallest automation investment can provide improved efficiency, boosted profits and better overall insight into facility health.

By appreciating the shades of grey across the automation spectrum, all businesses, can adopt the best automation level for their given scenario. For a one-stop-shop for automation parts, click here.

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