Is ‘digital’ a done deal for the oilfield?

Oil IT Journal editor Neil McNaughton hears an improbable claim at the 2013 Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition. He argues that the digital oilfield is really only just getting started and that Chapter Three is being written by the non-conventional sector. Turning to some housekeeping he ‘pre-announces’ the celebratory 200th edition of the Journal.

It is curious that at the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ IT technical section (ITTS) the ‘all clear’ announcement was made—and made more than once. Seemingly the digital oilfield is a done deal and we can all rest on our laurels (I exaggerate, that is not actually what was said—see our report from the SPE ATCE and the drilling systems automation technical section (Dsats) on pages 6&7).

Having argued previously that the digital oilfield was a done deal before the SPE began taking an interest, I am now going to turn my editorial hat around and argue that it still has room for improvement. To back up this reasoning I offer a potted ‘bunk-style’ history of the digital oilfield in three chapters.

Chapter One—In the last century, ‘digital’ in the oilfield meant the application of horizontal digital technologies. Telecoms, process control—in fact just whatever was to hand. Throughout Chapter One, the goal of interoperability remained elusive.

Chapter Two—Which roughly corresponds to the efforts of the SPE ITTS and others to inject a bit more enthusiasm into digital in the oilfield—covers the first decade or so of this century. This has seen a bewilderingly broad church of activities and projects masquerading as the digital oilfield, leveraging what was already established in Chapter One and adding in goodies such as Microsoft Excel, SharePoint and lots of file based data exchange. The interoperability question was addressed in a rather ugly fashion, by file transfers using more or less standard and more or less sophisticated data formats. A ‘string and sealing wax’ kind of solution.

Of course connectivity (as opposed to interoperability) was getting better and in fact you could exchange just about any data you wanted to. Especially if you stayed with the same service provider. Using a standard format à la Witsml is all very well. But established suppliers will invariably seek to expand their footprint and may have other constraints in achieving ‘industrial strength’ systems. All of which means that the interoperability movement still has a hard time.

This may not have been as important as all that in two very different contexts. At the low end of drilling and production, the sneakernet metaphor of moving data around on a USB stick or various similar approaches may be all that is required to make things work. At the other end of the spectrum, mega projects like high end Gulf of Mexico platforms or Australian LNG terminals, are developed on more of a ‘spare no expense’ basis where a single main automation contractor (MAC) will come in with boatloads of kit ready to be deployed.

Chapter Three—This is being written today by the non conventional sector. Here a perfect storm of requirements is forcing a shift away from both the sneakernet metaphor and the MAC approach. Non conventional development means doing things quickly—to stay ahead of steep production decline curves. It also means doing things cheaply—as the economics of drilling a large number of wells for a relatively small amount of production may be less than stellar. It also means doing things ‘at scale’ with ‘factory drilling’ of extensive shale plays.

The factory drilling paradigm hides a lot of complexity. While geosciences input may be downplayed, multi-stage fracs make for complex real-time interactions between multiple stakeholders. Key to the successful factory is automation capable of reacting to changing situations and assimilating increasing quantities of real time measures.

This is a really interesting situation where service contractors need to collaborate on fast moving, complex operations in a mobile setting. It is a great test-bed for novel control systems that may require new approaches like the one in this month’s lead. Drilling and completion is getting smarter—and it will get smarter still before we’re through.


In March 2014, Oil IT Journal will be publishing its 200th edition. Since starting out in July 1996 we have printed around two million words of reporting on upstream information technology. Most of this, that is to say all of it except for the current year, is available online at as a free resource for operators, researchers and vendors. The current year’s headlines and editorials like this one are also available freely online. The full text of the Journal is restricted to our subscriber base which you can now join through our new online subscription system on our parent company website

We plan to invite our subscribers and others to chip in for what I hope will be a bumper special issue to celebrate the 200th birthday with comments about the impact (negative or positive) that Oil IT Journal has had on their businesses. And we will also be inviting comments on how Oil IT Journal could be improved to see us through the next 200 issues or so.

I guess that it is about time we did some market research because we have to a large extent been flying blind since the publication started out apart from occasional chats and email exchanges with readers which are generally positive. The odd occasion when such exchanges have not been positive have even resulted in a brusque cancellation of a subscription as Oil IT Journal was deemed to be ‘off message’ by the marketing department or politically incorrect in some editorial stance or other. Such happenings are thankfully few and far between and, as a reader recently remarked, are a sign that we ‘must be doing something right.’


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