ITF’s annual Technology Showcase explored how to create a “culture of innovation” in oil and gas, by way of racing, rapid prototyping and more.
The first few months of 2017 have likely left anyone involved in oil and gas technology in Aberdeen struggling for breath. A stream of announcements from the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA), the ever-popular Subsea Expo conference and the opening of the new Oil and Gas Technology Centre (OGTC) in early February have all propelled UK innovators into the new year – hopefully with a raft of new ideas. That process is only set to continue in the wake of the annual Industry Technology Facilitator (ITF) Technology Showcase, a key event in the calendar for major operators and fledgling start-ups alike.
Brought together under the theme of “Technology in Action,” ITF again engaged speakers from inside and outside the hydrocarbons industry, mixing the expertise of seasoned oil veterans with some fresh thinking and objective advice. However, this was not just a case of exploring technology transfer opportunities, but something more fundamental: how the industry can create a so-called “culture of innovation” and how this culture might speed up the pace of change.
Pole position Dr Geoff McGrath, chief innovation officer at McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) and the KPMG McLaren Alliance – the event’s sponsor – was quick to note the difference in his keynote speech. MAT, he said, was not set up to export automotive advances, but to demonstrate how a culture of cutting-edge tech, with racing in its DNA, could be applied to any business.
McLaren Racing preaches and practices this philosophy. McGrath explained how data were used to inform design and monitor performance – the average F1 car contains about 300 separate data streams – and how this leads engineering teams from design, through simulation and out onto the track. Rapid prototyping via 3D printing and other technologies, for example, allow the team to create a new part every 20 minutes, and just as quickly determine whether it is of benefit to the vehicle.
“There are strong correlations between motor racing and the oil and gas industry but culture and behaviour towards technology development and innovation needs to be accelerated. Though it is very easy to improve performance technically, it is harder to optimise the whole business – this is a cultural challenge,” added McGrath. He also discussed the importance of personnel, explaining that the company takes on new graduates and gives them responsibility quickly, precisely because it believes this is when they are most motivated and when they are approaching their mathematical peak. He also suggested that good use of data and analytics could help make up for a limited amount of experience. “Seniority,” he said, “is just pattern recognition.”
As if to embody that statement, 22-year old RPD International CEO Josh Valman followed with a presentation that would not have been out of place at a TED Talk, tackling the very crux of the issue: what is innovation, and what does it mean?
Defining it as “the process of executing new ideas,” Valman also extolled the importance of a corporate culture which fostered innovation in all its employees. Whether in production, procurement or reception, employees should be able to contribute ideas which can save money or improve how a business works. If only 2% of ideas get to market, he suggested, the 98% which do not are the most important; companies should therefore “create an environment which allows for necessary failure.”
Technology such as 3D printing and predictive analytics can aid this process by making such “failures” cheaper and less time-consuming – and indeed these techniques are starting to take hold in the industry’s consciousness – but this must be underpinned by a culture which encourages their use.
Technology readiness Perspective from inside industry followed. The director of Strathclyde University’s Oil & Gas Institute, Willie Reid, spoke of the benefits of involving academia in corporate R&D, and of how these organisations can play a key role in bridging the gap between early technology readiness levels (TRLs) and later commercial deployment.
OGTC chief executive Colette Cohen discussed what facilities and support the centre would offer industry innovators. In its current form, she said, oil and gas was “not the industry of the 21st Century” but that centres such as hers could help change this. She also addressed the previous speakers’ comments head-on, reflecting on how the OGTC could help to foster the aforementioned “culture of innovation.”
Affirming the need for cost reductions of up to 50% in the North Sea, Cohen said that the OGTC would focus on new technologies for wells, small pools development and asset integrity – in particular for plugging and abandonment innovations, remote plug-and-play tiebacks, new materials, robotics, inspection and repair techniques. Those efforts may already be bearing fruit; one OGTC-backed field trial is currently under way, and more are planned for the summer.
Last to present was Petrofac’s Dr Geoff Nesbitt, who mused on the effect that the oil price had so far had on engineering and innovation. With EPC rates as low as US$25 an hour and rigs stacked across the world, he noted that for the foreseeable future the path of technology development would be decided by money. Using a diagram popularised by Boston Consulting to gauge technology impact, he set out his views on which innovations had the potential to meet that challenge.
Indeed, much of Nesbitt’s highlights were reflected in the substantial afternoon sessions, which included an in-depth look at the trends and companies working with new materials (3D printing, composites and other advanced forming practices), digital (connectivity, robotics, intelligent plant and digital twins) and inspection techniques (AUV surveys, sensors, condition monitoring and smart fibre). For those interested in learning more, full presentations are available through the ITF website.
Expert opinion Following a coffee break, and a tour of the exhibition (which included 3D visualisation walls, robotic arms and some composite aeroplane landing gear), the subsequent panel session brought together the morning’s speakers, with the addition of Chevron Upstream Europe managing director Greta Lydecker and OGA director of operations Gunther Newcombe. Always lively, these sessions give delegates a chance to question – and frequently challenge – operators and regulators on policy and practice.
Proving there were no sacred cows here, one thread of discussion focused on whether the industry had been over-regulated in its technology qualification and HSE requirements. Some panellists were in favour of scaling back the amount of qualification needed, at least in early development, to help get technologies into the field quicker. McGrath offered valuable advice from the racing industry, explaining that McLaren had brought in the regulator as it developed new innovations to ensure there were no surprises on race day. Valman too noted the importance of working within the rules, but using new innovation as a driving force for bending them – such a model for oil and gas may be worth exploring, particularly as the pace of global technological change accelerates.
That is not to say the panel offered a united set of opinions. While Newcombe and Nesbitt felt that industry had become somewhat lazy about innovation during the high-price, high-profit years, Lydecker argued strongly that Chevron (and the sector as a whole) had always invested in new technology throughout its history. She added that new recruits would also help push new ways of working, because “people joining the industry straight out of university today come with a much greater aptitude for technology.”
With the growing influence of the OGTC, the OGA and organisations such as ITF and the Oil and Gas Innovation Centre (OGIC), certainly there are more opportunities for innovators to find a platform for their ideas, at home and abroad – indeed, Newcombe praised the “most cohesive period for 40 years” in terms of aligning policy, academia and business.
If there was one key takeaway from the event, it was that the technology necessary to transform the industry paradigm already exists. Whether for inspection, mobility, connectivity or materials construction, there are companies and applications which are proven and working today. The proof will now be in qualifying and realising promised cost reductions – a task which can be achieved in a relatively short time if industry users maintain an open mind.