Structural integrity management in oil and gas

The future is evidently digital, with many companies in the early adoption or transitional phases of systems and devices that are enabling them to utilise actionable data

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This article originally appeared in a report: Time and tide wait for no man: The importance of structural integrity 

In 2001, there were some 7,270 offshore oil and gas installations in existence in the world’s oceans. Fifteen years later, there are an estimated 9,000 in operation from the Norwegian Continental Shelf to the Pacific Ocean, with up to half of these dotted across the Gulf of Mexico in shallow to ultra-deepwater.

With an intended life cycle plan of 20 years from commission, but an operational lifespan expected to surpass that by as much as two decades, the vast majority of the world’s oil and gas facilities are now mature assets on mature fields

Asset integrity, the underlying systems of people and processes tasked with allowing a facility to perform its core business functions while safeguarding the tenets of health, safety and environmental compliance, is an intrinsic art in the maintenance of the industry iron and concrete giants.

Sitting within this vast and complex web of interconnected functions, structural integrity management (SIM), is a central thread that drives at the core of a successful asset integrity strategy. A simple phrase from the UK’s health and safety executive serves as a summation to this effect: “Structural failure could cause the immediate total loss of an installation, with little chance of personnel surviving.” Two often-cited examples of structural failure in the offshore space serve as stark reminders of exactly what can go wrong when the installations that feed our industry literally go to pieces.

Examples of in the integrity failure in the oil and gas sector

Sea Gem - 1956

The first British rig to discovery natural gas in September 1965, Sea Gem was a 5,600-ton steel barge converted by British Petroleum to act as a drilling platform. Standing on 10 steel legs, the barge could be raised to a height of 15 metres above the surface of the water and then lowered to embark on repositioning. Two days after Christmas, the facility was being cranked down to sea level for just this purpose, when two of its 10 legs catastrophically failed, causing the rig to capsize. Thirteen of the 32-man crew on board lost their lives in the disaster

Alexander L. Kielland - 1980

Phillips Petroleum employed this pentagon rig as a flotel on the Ekofisk field of the Norwegian Continental Shelf when disaster struck. One of the horizontal brace supports of one of the semi-subs’ five legs snapped, causing a chain reaction that led to the other braces attached to the leg also failing within a matter of seconds. The weakened leg sheared off dumping the platform into the North Sea at a 35-degree angle, partially submerging the deck and accommodation block. in the chaos that ensued in the 14 minutes after the initial break, 123 of the 212 men aboard perished as the rig went under.

Addressing integrity problems

A lot has changed in the intervening half-century that separates the present day from the Sea Gem the disaster that happened during the early years of North Sea oil and gas exploration. The two catastrophes above have reshaped the way in which the health and safety of personnel are treated. Codes of conduct are now in place to prevent disasters from occurring.

The industry is in the midst of an oil price depression the likes of which the world has not seen for a generation. If we add a prolonged dip in the cost of a barrel to the unavoidable threats of ageing, extreme weather and the hypothetical menace of freak events, asset and structural integrity management are in the spotlight to a greater extent than ever

In the current economic environment, there’s a greater emphasis on doing more with the assets you have rather than building and deploying new assets. Determining how to get more out of existing assets is a pressing problem for owners and the engineering companies that support them.

Some of them are external and some of them are internal. For example, external drivers include changing meteorological data in many parts of the world, with new wave height regulations coming into play. Changing technologies and the desire to improve output can result in new equipment, which is often heavier and that drives a re-assessment.

The fact that many companies keep engineering in-house shows that it’s critical to their business, both for management and also
productivity improvement. Especially given the current unpredictable climate conditions, it just goes to show that it is not all
about the money. If it were, the percentage of outsourcing would be much higher. Eengineering is now being viewed as part of the integrality of a modern, data-focused oil and gas enterprise.

Having a better way of assessing conditions and maintaining that as an electronic record to go forward with is a key driver for pushing toward some kind of operational excellence and improved site maintenance. 

What technology can help with structural integrity management? 

  • Cloud technology
    Cloud has been advancing rapidly and the data security problems pertaining to the cloud are gradually being dispelled. Energy companies are in a position where they will be able to use the cloud effectively and gain justifiable value from it.

  • Mobile devices
    Mobile solutions have been revolutionising the business landscape for a number of years with the growth of connectivity and coverage in the civilian and commercial domain. With data volumes doubling every year and large integrated energy companies handling as much information per day as Google, mobile devices are playing an integral part in the interpretation of the evolving digital oilfield.

  • UAVs and drones
    As oil and gas companies are going into deeper and more inhospitable areas to extract precious reserves, the limitations of the industry’s key asset is holding it back. And that asset is the man himself.

    The oil and gas sector has been using unmanned operating systems in the form of submersible remotely-operated vehicles (ROVs)since the 1980s as an invaluable aid to inspections, drilling support and diver assist roles, but until recently, the role of the ROV’s airborne cousin, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), has been virtually non-existent.

    With the recent widespread commercialisation of so-called "drone" technology in every walk of business from highway planning to crowd surveillance and parcel delivery, the idea of UAVs as part of an integrated solution in the oil and gas world is really taking off.

We are on the cusp of a seismic shift in the way that structural integrity management is taking place in the oil and gas field. 

Those within the business would be the first to point out the bipolarity of an industry that, on the one hand uses cutting-edge technology to locate and extract oil from thousands of metres beneath the surface of the Earth, yet on the other is so resistant to change that revisions to established practices are looked upon with suspicion.

The industry is realising that in the 21stcentury business sphere, a company is only as good as the data it can capture and analyse with the right tools. All of which are potential lifesavers for an industry that is in the throes of a major financial upheaval and large-scale restructuring.

The future is evidently digital, with many companies in the early adoption or transitional phases of systems and devices that are enabling them to have a full-spectrum dominance of the data that makes their organisations tick.

Companies are bringing more data-gathering and analysis back in-house as they realise that mastery of the 1s and 0s is the key to maximising the safety and efficacy of ever-ageing assets.

The potential for the growth of this trend is enormous, with recent employee attrition and the looming “Great Crew Change” all pointing to a broader adoption of technology to fill the gaps opened up by falling oil prices and dwindling qualified manpower.

The impetus for a sea change in the way the industry does business has never been more palpable, and, fortunately, the prevailing winds are favourably turning to guide using the right direction.

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