A system that gathers data from all components helps determine whether personnel should discontinue operation.
by Theresa Woodiel (National Instruments)
September 26, 2014

According to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. has surpassed Saudi Arabia and Russia to become the world’s largest oil producer. Increased production is attributed largely to the use of hydraulic fracturing, a technique that stimulates and increases production from wells. Another factor in improved production rates is horizontal drilling. The oil and gas industry is dominated with legacy equipment, which makes monitoring and predictive maintenance critical. The rate of technology adoption in the industrial space has been relatively slow. Some contributing factors to these delays include disruptions to business operations and the associated costs. Fortunately, using a proven platform can provide the efficiency of integrated operations along with reduced risk and cost. Oil and gas field operations are becoming increasingly complex, as evidenced by the growing number of hydraulic fracturing (frac) stages completed on each well. Many oilfield service companies have mature assets that require an efficient maintenance schedule. Further complicating maintenance routines, drilling locations are often in remote areas. In addition, the need for flexible tool sets capable of adjusting production operations to meet unconventional oil and gas sites is becoming a requirement instead of an option. Pumps play a critical role in this process.

The Internet of Things

The convergence of sensors, storage and connectivity has introduced the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT). In industrial terms, this means the oil and gas industry is moving away from disparate, isolated operations and toward arrangements in which equipment assets and systems communicate with each other. As embedded systems become ubiquitous, each pump, chiller and industrial machine will have an IP address. Engineers, operation facilities and maintenance professionals will have access to previously unavailable data. By making sense of this data, companies can better manage their equipment assets and business processes.

Pumpers at a drilling siteImage 2. Pumpers at a drilling site

While this provides a glimpse of the future, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of oil and gas field equipment is currently outfitted with embedded devices and sensors. Also, triplex and quintaplex pumps range in cost from $250,000 to $300,000. Since pumps are among the most expensive pieces of equipment, monitoring their performance is critical. Oilfield service companies must prioritize to create a more comprehensive fleet-wide monitoring plan.

The Challenge

As technology ages, sustaining custom electronics packages can prove challenging. This is particularly true when resources become limited. For custom-made packages, oilfield service companies become tied to equipment providers. From an engineering perspective, when a company manages many assets from different vendors, they try to fit together pieces that are not part of the same puzzle. This makes a fleet view of their operations incredibly challenging to see. Because of this, it is often unscalable for companies to effectively manage the monitoring of critical and non-critical assets with manual diagnostics. Also, the diagnostics are inconsistent and influenced by the experience of the personnel gathering and analyzing the data, the equipment and the capabilities of the control systems. As a result, oilfield service companies seek off-the-shelf platforms that enable the flexibility to have one system to control pump monitoring and the heavy equipment from any specific supplier.

The Solution

One company has developed a solution for fleet-wide monitoring that is designed to track the performance of vital pump components during operation. The solution focuses on monitoring high-pressure fracturing pumps in well-stimulation applications. Each fracturing unit includes a high-horsepower diesel engine and transmission mated to a triplex or quintaplex pump. The engine and the transmission are equipped with an electronic interface that monitors critical functions and provides diagnostic information as the unit operates. The engine and transmission output the data that they monitor through a Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J1939 controller area network (CAN) protocol. Currently, pumps in the oil and gas industry contain only a few discrete sensors that monitor their critical operating parameters. Instead, discharge pressure, rotations per minute (rpm), lube oil pressure and lube oil temperature should be monitored. Each of these parameters is measured with an individual sensor and signal cable connected to the main control console.

Pump monitoring solution mated to pumperImage 3. A pump monitoring solution mated to a pumper

The new technology monitors these functions and other complex processes and transmits this data to the main control console using the same SAE J1939 CAN protocol. The system searches for data characteristics outside the normal operating envelope and failure conditions. With this real-time information, personnel can determine whether they should discontinue operation based on real performance indications from the pump. Ultimately, this system should reduce pump failures and overall pump maintenance costs. Without adopting advanced technology, engineering managers will be left with an incomplete view of their fleet operations. For example, operators may not understand that pump aging accelerates based on how they run them. Maintenance personnel will have an insufficient view of field equipment and the required schedules without new technologies, too. Insights derived from the field can be communicated to engineers in the office so that operators understand the pump’s life cycle. To overcome these challenges, oilfield service companies need advanced platforms and a new way to deploy technology in the field. Specifically, they need to accomplish three tasks effectively:

  • Companies must integrate a spectrum of applications in the oilfield cost effectively. These applications may include surface operations such as the real-time synchronization across pumpers and proppant delivery. Control systems allow operators to direct the mixing and pumping process at a safe distance while monitoring the equipment’s condition (see Image 1).
  • Companies must also strike a balance between characteristics that offer ruggedness—such as shock, vibration and temperature span—and those that offer processing flexibility, input/output (I/O) counts and onboard storage capabilities. While custom or traditional approaches offer a high I/O count, they provide limited functionality from a software programming perspective.
  • Engineering and management teams must improve efficiency through the cycle of product manufacturing, spanning from design to deployment. This includes adopting best practices within relevant industries based on those who have applied embedded systems throughout this process.

Following the status quo will leave some firms ill-equipped to discover business insights across the complex network of systems in the oil and gas sector. Even more, focusing exclusively on extending product capabilities will leave few resources to improve the innovation cycle and cost reduction strategies that could be applied to processes and technology within an organization’s fleet. The industry cycles that occur in oilfield services further complicate this process. Historically, oilfield service companies have not considered how different types of equipment integrate with their control platforms. They are left trying to figure out how to mix and match equipment and control platforms, often realizing that the pieces are not from the same box. This difficulty is further compounded by all the moving parts for service companies including frac crews, planning with operators, equipment vendors, and planning and drilling the well. As a result, organizations seek control platforms that are independent of equipment providers. With a commercial off-the-shelf platform approach, service companies can integrate application reuse without custom software programming development. Engineering teams are shifting to provide more analysis and insight that can be used across organizations to address the next era of business challenges. Condition and predictive monitoring is an alternative approach that addresses end users’ major problems by actively tracking equipment to detect health degradation and failure. This approach to system design enables engineers to regain control of their applications. By adopting the reconfigurable I/O architecture, engineers can shorten development time and reduce risks as they focus on high-value tasks.