Part 3: When creativity and capability collide

Ideas and intent can only carry progress so far. Without the right buy-in, infrastructure, investments, and risk threshold, innovation will starve. Like most unique solutions, the digital oilfield concept has faced many barriers from the get-go.

Financial limitations posed the greatest threat to pursuing a digital transformation. Concerns ranged from lack of financial value for distributed operations or “one-off” projects to issues with supplier fragmentation, misaligned skill sets, and immediate pressures to extract barrel of oil equivalents (BOEs) all posed roadblocks.

Investors’ uneasiness to support an approach with assumed versus proven results also hindered funding. Although projected results were positive, investors and executives wanted reassurance based on actual performance, rather than theoretical gains, before overhauling operations.

Vital technology gaps also justified the wide-spread hesitation. While bringing automation capabilities onsite would eliminate that gap, the lack of sufficient digital infrastructure for field automation and real-time AI left a gaping hole. The thousands of miles between fields and offices—even with cloud computing—presented an unacceptable lag for transmitting the massive amounts of data fast enough for real-time decision making.

Since the amount of data being transmitted is so large, on-the-spot decision making isn’t a possibility even with cloud computing. Insufficient security measures to prevent hacking into well operations also posed a growing threat, considering the potentially catastrophic impacts of an attack. Overall, the disconnected computing systems were too weak and vulnerable to handle the tremendous responsibility of bringing automation to the edge.

Technology issues have been compounded further by limited options for reliable, cost-effective solutions. Automation and AI technologies were available, but they were designed for consistent, temperature-controlled data center environments, not remote and demanding on- or offshore conditions. Attempting to field this traditional computer hardware would have plagued operations and productivity with ongoing system failures driven by unpredictable weather conditions and harsh environmental factors, like shock and vibration, salt-fog, corrosion, humidity, and dust.

In addition to the various operating extremes, heat-generating components pose another unique twist. The CPUs, GPUs, FGPAs, and power supplies packed in a single system to accommodate the amount of “work” it must perform generate a tremendous amount of heat. If the heat isn’t managed properly, it can throttle, potentially shutting down the entire system. And with limited staff or support resources onsite to maintain the onboard computer systems, an outage of this magnitude could take days or weeks to correct.

Faced with culture and technology obstacles mixed with year-over-year market volatility, the risk/reward equation was skewed too far in the wrong direction for a welcome migration to digital oilfields. But considering how much, and how fast, things can change, the staggering scope of challenges has eroded.

Stay tuned for the conclusion in Part 4 of the series to learn how technology capabilities, cost/benefit assessments and industry mindsets have evolved and aligned to finally make digital oilfields a reality.