At the end of one month in 2020, the UK Oil and Gas Authority reviewed the then state of manning levels on the country’s North Sea installations. It revealed an overall decrease in staffing levels of 40%.
Few who have lived through the year-long lockdown following the outbreak of Coronavirus cases in the country will be surprised it had so profound an effect. More surprising perhaps is to know that the month in question was March last year, by which time the official UK lockdown was barely a fortnight old.
That speaks well for the sector’s response rate to an unprecedented health and economic crisis and for the seriousness with which it apparently treated the situation from the start.
But it has meant that for more than 12 months, the industry has functioned at a much lower rate of labour intensity than ever before, to the point where temporary measures seem anything but.
Changes to keep workers socially distanced have included screening, staggered working hours, single occupancy cabins for remote sites. This, needless to say, has meant potentially greater responsibilities on the shoulders of those workers onsite at any time. And, as with so many sectors and industries, it has increased employer interest in investing in sophisticated products and systems capable of acting autonomously and remotely.
As a test engineer you are almost resigned to long set up procedures and software that falls over at the drop of a hat. But we were able to complete our long term test procedures with the minimum amount of fuss and well within the allotted time schedule
Andrew Laverick, engineer, Bifold Group
For firms such as Servelec Controls this has provided a boon, as extended use of scaled down workforces has helped underline the economic, production and safety benefits of greater automation and digitisation.
In a recent statement Servelec focused on the theme, asking what if regular intervention on normally unmanned installations was unnecessary, while manned platforms could be streamlined to current minimum staffing levels?
It asserted this reduced not only virus infection risks, but also the risk of injury or death from accidents, decreased costs incurred from living and transport arrangements, improved safety standards and mitigated mistakes caused by human error. Plus, there was the further benefit of driving improvements to operational efficiency.
“The disruptive and transformative use of technology can aid in current offshore oil and gas installations moving from manned to unmanned whilst being monitored and controlled from a remote on or offshore control centre,” says Servelec sales director Chris Stones. “We are working with a number of UKCS owner/operators to develop and implement solutions that range from complete removal of on-board personnel to the achievement of safe minimum manning levels – both solutions deliver massive improvements in safety, efficiency and OPEX reduction. This all combines to extend the viable asset life and in turn help in the security of domestic energy supply.”
The potentially hazardous nature of offshore oil and gas extraction makes it perhaps inevitable that much of the emphasis on creating a post-Covid work regime has focused upstream. Yet the same needs apply downstream, in terms of balancing the demand for efficient oversight with human safety.
The gateway manifold would have been nearly impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing techniques due to its complex internal channels
Amelia Stead, AM surveyor, Lloyd’s Register
Piping valves and pumps specialist Bifold Group has a history of working in the oil and gas sector, developing innovative solenoid valves with the lowest power requirements.
Over the last decade and a half, it has grown profits by an average of 50% a year and created some 250 high value jobs, with 95% of its output derived from exports.
Its emphasis is on producing custom products to short lead times, relying on computer aided design. This in turn places a heavy emphasis on highly efficient testing procedures. A particular interest was the testing of wear effects on its long-life valves.
Engineer Andrew Laverick describes: “We wanted to measure the power required to operate the valve to see how it changed over time and with long term use. It was clear that the best way to do this was to measure the torque input over an extended period.”
Their answer was to turn to Sensor Technology for help with the design of two specialist test rigs, which suggested the use of TorqSense radio frequency based torque transducers.
The shaft of these non-contact measuring devices is attached with a pair of surface acoustic wave devices; these react to torque applied to the shaft by changing their output and can be interrogated wirelessly using a radio frequency couple.
Says Laverick: “As a test engineer you are almost resigned to long set up procedures and software that falls over at the drop of a hat. But we were able to complete our long term test procedures with the minimum amount of fuss and well within the allotted time schedule.”
Working in isolation
As the focus grows in oil and gas upon equipment reliability as an antidote to direct human intervention, additive manufacturing is reaping returns on investment. Whether or not repairs can be completed remotely or not, it is essential that mechanisms are in place to ensure structures are safe during intervention, whether onshore or off.
The production of isolation plugs remains a highly specialised niche, with few companies worldwide expert in doing this. Traditionally, these have tended to be made for larger pipework, up to nearly five feet in diameter.
Recently, however, the Safer Plug Company developed an isolation plug for 6-inch pipelines, featuring a titanium gateway manifold. Significantly, this is the first of its kind to be made using the additive manufacturing direct metal laser sintering process.
A key contribution came from miniature component specialist The Lee Company, which provided more than 20 components for use in the manifold. These included Lee plugs, AFO plugs, check valves, relief valves, shuttle valves and six special 250 series solenoid valves, based on those used in Formula 1 racing cars.
Amelia Stead, primary technical lead on the project and AM surveyor for Lloyd’s Register, which oversaw and certified the product in 2017, described the innovative nature of the process involved, saying: “The gateway manifold would have been nearly impossible to produce using traditional manufacturing techniques due to its complex internal channels.”
Asset reliability and performance are key factors for the oil and gas sector but as processes alter and existing equipment ages, it is the avoidance of downtime that becomes paramount, notes Luca Lonoce, Sulzer pump retrofit specialist.
Retrofits offer the chance to increase pump systems’ productivity and reliability and cut energy costs he advises.
Reliability issues can be improved through a change in materials to resolve erosion or corrosion, altering the hydraulic design of the pump to boost performance. Minimising the number of components modified helps limit time and cost.
Water injection systems are key to maximising well delivery to increase the productivity of the oil wells.
As the oil field matures, there is a need to increase the water injection rates to maximise oil production. This requires the capacity of the injection pumps to be increased without affecting the layout of the plant or the existing pipework.
Here, the flowrate needs to increase while maintaining the head, which means that the power demand will rise and the pump design will need to be altered. By working closely with the platform engineers and establishing the limits of the motor or turbine, pump designers can draw up a modified hydraulic proposal that will improve both performance and efficiency.
In an alternative scenario, the system pressure may need to be reduced, while maintaining the original flowrate.
And there are valuable incentives in terms of compliance and brand reputation for oil and gas companies to endorse retrofitting, explains Lonoce. “In Norway, the government offers support to the oil and gas industry to reduce its carbon footprint. One of the biggest gains can be achieved by reducing the energy consumption of pumping assets.”
Not only that but the overriding concern to deliver savings on budgets and time can be realised.
A recent Sulzer contract in the Middle East provided a rerate solution that saved the operator an estimated US$150 million compared to the cost of procuring new pumping equipment.
The company was tasked with achieving best possible flowrates using as many existing components as possible, and with minimal disruption to the production schedule.
Using a complete, spare cartridge for the pumps, it modified the cartridge design from four-stage design for a three-stage alternative with a similar diameter impeller. This allowed the existing pipework, lube systems, mechanical seals, bearing housings and site interfaces to be retained.
The process took two to three days to complete, including commissioning. The original cartridge that had been removed was taken back to Sulzer’s engineering centre where it underwent the same design rerate process.
The upgraded cartridges delivered a 25% increase in flow over the original design of the four pumps, with total injection capacity rising by 30%.