Grass no greener on other side of DOFF fence

Editor Neil McNaughton wonders which direction technology is being transferred in the digital oilfield. Is the upstream to apply technology from the downstream? Or is it the other way round? His investigations lead to the discovery of yet another silo boundary, at the very heart of the digital oilfield. Oh, and by the way, this issue concludes 10 years of Oil IT Journal’s existence!

A common sales pitch from technology vendors is that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Much of the discussion around the digital oilfield of the future (DOFF) revolves around the idea that the upstream is a technology laggard. In particular, that the upstream has failed to implement real time simulation and optimization technology that is supposed to prevail in the refinery.


In a Control Magazine podcast* this month. Editor in Chief Walt Boyes was interviewing Pavilion Technologies’ Matt Tormollen, and Halliburton’s Richard Ella about their joint offering (OITJ Vol. 11 N° 4) which sets out to ‘make the vision of a real time integrated asset model a reality.’ Boyes was obviously intrigued by what Halliburton was proposing for the field of the future. At one point he described the new offering as the ‘holy grail’ of process engineering where everything is integrated. This brought a degree of backtracking from his interlocutors. The upstream is supposed to be a laggard, not a leader after all. You can listen to the podcast on and hear Tormollen and Ella argue their case for operations-focused modeling.


I visited a refinery myself last year and was surprised to find that simulation was very separate from operations and used almost exclusively in operator training. I imagined at the time that this was an unusual site – perhaps a technology laggard which hadn’t been penetrated by the real time stuff. Reading the announcement this month of Hyperion’s simulator that has just been commissioned by Saudi Aramco for its Riyadh refinery (page 8), it seems as though simulation is still mostly about operator training. Although the Hyperion tool will be used for ‘process analyses and de-bottlenecking’, there is no mention of real time optimization here.


On page 7 of this issue, you can read our report from the 2006 Plant Engineering Lifecycle Conference (PELC) held in The Hague last month. We have been following this conference since 1998 (when it was Plant Information Management) along with the meetings of the USPI-NL standards body for plant engineering information technology. In the early days, I felt that this was pushing the boat out a bit far for Oil IT Journal’s upstream readership. But there were links between the upstream and the plant communities—notably through POSC/CAESAR. Our coverage was based on the supposition that the IT that was used to build a platform would sooner or later come under the radar of the folks that were operating it.

Double take

As the 2006 PELC was closing, I noticed that AspenTech was exhibiting for the first time. I did a double take. The first because I figured that AspenTech was more of a process control shop than a plant engineer. The second came because in four PIM/PELC conferences, this the first time I’d seen a connection to the process control world per se. I wondered, was this another silo boundary dividing the plant from the process world? A boundary of almost fractal complexity that runs along pipes, between valves, around heat exchangers, separating their physical manifestations from their associated control systems?


To check this out, I asked USPI-NL chairperson, Paul van Exel for help. He sent my query on to DSM’s Hindrik Koning who confirmed that, ‘Your impression is correct, we are trying to harmonize information standards with many groups, but we are short of manpower. In the process control field, we have been working with the Instrument Society of America (ISA) and the German NAMUR organization to align ISO 15926 part 4 with ISA.’ We’ll be providing more of Hindrik’s detailed response in the September issue of Oil IT Journal.

IT the glue?

What is exciting about all the silos and disconnects above it that the magic words ‘digital oilfield’ bring a great jumble of standards, work practices, engineering and science together. A valve and its computer control systems ought to have an identity that is carried from design, through handover, operations, maintenance and the holistic modeling proposed by Landmark, Pavilion and others. I know that we’ve been here before, but this time around I just wanted to point out that our dilettante conference attendance is helping us—and I hope our readership, navigate around a DOFF of mind boggling scope.

10 years of Oil IT Journal

Finally, I’m pleased to announce that this issue of Oil IT Journal concludes ten years of reporting on oil and gas information technology. When Petroleum Data Manager (PDM—Oil IT Journal’s predecessor) started out back in 1996, each issue contained around 7,000 words. Last month’s Oil IT Journal contained 9,600 words—nearly 40% more! Over the ten year period we’ve written around 920,000 words, more than Tolstoy’s War and Peace (560,000 words) but less than Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu—which has been estimated at a whopping 3 million words. Figures are for numerical, rather than literary comparison purposes.


Over the last ten years we have expanded our scope from PDM’s data management focus to oil and gas IT at large. We have also extended our reach from the upstream to pipeline, process and facility. To find that all this reporting on applications, e-business, engineering and the rest at the heart of the DOFF is gratifying. But what I find most interesting is that the role of an oil company chief information officer is not just to apply technology. He or she now is in a unique position to work around the petty silo barriers. IT is more than an ‘enabler.’ Actually, it is the DOFF’s prime mover. Go to it!


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