The steps-saving discipline that is automation keeps expanding its realm. From a service company’s back office to a producer’s onsite operations to injection chemicals at remote locations—and far beyond—automation continues to spread its ability to streamline and inform oil patch operations. Innovators in those three areas share their expertise.
By Paul Wiseman
Transparency and Accountability in Accounting
“I realized that there was no trust in the industry,” says Oil Command founder and CEO Brady Uselman. He made this discovery while helping a cousin and his friend develop back office software for their tubing inspection startup in North Dakota.
The two businessmen reached out to Uselman because of his technology experience. “I spent the next year-and-a-half basically interviewing everybody in the ecosystem, from company men to back office people in an E&P company to superintendents, oilfield service company owners…” and more. It was at that point he discovered the trust disconnect between service providers and operators—primarily due to inefficient and inaccurate paper trails.
Uselman’s first paying customer came into the fold in April of 2017. The Utah-based firm now has about 20 clients, several of which are in the Permian Basin.
Paper based systems, Uselman found, have too few accuracy checkpoints, which may make clients distrust the entire process. “I think the opportunity for technology is to create transparency and accountability, and that has two benefits,” Uselman says.
“The first is for an oilfield service company to create transparency within their own organization and dramatically shift the profit margins. All of a sudden, if you have the right metrics, you can analyze the productivity and the profitability of every person in your organization.”
The second benefit is in speeding the billing and collection process. Elimination of hand-written tickets that can be lost or undecipherable means the sales information gets into the billing system immediately. Under a hand-written system, operators may withhold payment due to incomplete data or other issues. “At the end of the day, both people are wasting money and time for this old, archaic system.”
Even a well-cared-for paper ticket can travel across many days and hundreds of miles with a field tech before being handed over to accounting. By that time, any followup questions for the tech will likely be met by a blank look and a response of, “That was last week. I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday—certainly can’t remember that ticket.”
Tickets entered on a smart device before the technician leaves the location get vetted and approved much faster, which creates more trust on the part of clients.
In what may be the worst-case scenario, it prevents an angry, dismissed employee from setting fire to all the tickets in his truck before leaving the yard (true story).
Once the data is entered, it presents multiple opportunities for analysis of revenue or cost by well, and even by equipment and employee. Uselman says data analysis and accuracy may be the real cost benefit for accounting software.
“A lot of companies have no idea which are their best employees,” he says. “That employee that’s working his [tail] off, is he billing correctly? Is he charging for shop time?
“The reason that’s important is because you really want to demonstrate [to clients] the value that you’re delivering.” One of Oil Command’s goals for service companies is “to capture the value they’re bringing their customers so that they can charge top dollar for it. If they don’t do that, they’re going to be basically perceived as a commodity and they’re going to be beaten down on price. They’re not going to be able to communicate or command the salaries or the rates that they need to charge to get the best employees.”
Producer Creates Monitoring System out of Necessity
It is said that George Lucas made episodes 4-6 of Star Wars first because the technology he would need for the first three episodes was years away from being ready. He held off on episodes 1-3 until the technology was right.
Brothers Greg and Kevin Boyles deal much more with reality than fantasy, but they do understand waiting for technology to catch up with an idea.
In the early 1980s Greg Boyles and his friend Bob Snyder wanted to remotely monitor their wells in Throckmorton, Texas. Technology at that time was iffy and expensive, and communication was spotty. So they shelved the idea for about 25 years.
In 2004 Boyles had become involved in a joint venture with the state oil company in Trinidad. They had drilled 110 wells but had trouble keeping more than about 20 of them working at any one time due to high failure rates. “We felt like a little skinny dog—confused and not knowing what the complexities were that were making it so difficult to pump,” he says.
Finding a way to get real-time data regarding downhole pressures, fluid levels, and more was vital. Older manual methods of shooting fluid levels every 24-48 hours did not give current enough data for wells whose conditions changed every few minutes. “Perforations would become plugged up, and our fluid levels would drop rapidly, then the wells would kick and sand-up,” he said, describing a phenomenon that was happening over and over again on multiple wells.
By 2006 Boyles and his associates “piloted the first system to see if precision pump control based on real-time fluid levels could help us,” Boyles recalls. “It was a way to take the process of determining how much to pump away from a person, who had limited data, and giving it to a processor that could process data in real time, 24/7.”
With real-time information, they knew exactly when a well kicked, and what the fluid levels and pressures were at that moment, so they could “stop the process of refrying that bean,” reset the pump speed, and keep the well flowing.
They then could produce all the wells with one workover rig and without hiring additional personnel.
Almost accidentally, they discovered some larger principles that allowed them to produce exactly what each well is willing to give. This reduced operating expense and increased production at the same time.
Naming the product Smart Pumper they realized that this was something they could market outside their own company. It wasn’t long before they were asked for a test by Staatsolie, the national oil company of Suriname, in South America.
In comparing Smart Pumper to their older methods of controlling production, Staatsolie found they were producing 18-57 percent more with Boyles’s software.
His idea of using fluid levels to set pumps turned out to be the program’s biggest selling point. “That method determines the well’s true potential, and only takes from the well what the potential is and doesn’t try to take more. Therein lies where we create problems for ourselves—pulling the fluid level down too low, the pump may dry-pump and burn up if it’s a PCP, or maybe the well will kick and stand up.” They received a patent for the process in 2014.
In a sense, Smart Pumper allows the producer to stop fighting the well and instead work together with the formation.
For the open market version they’ve made the system adaptable to a wide variety of VFDs on the controller side, and to most types of connections on the communication side, Boyles says.
It would seem unusual, albeit uniquely appropriate, for software to be developed by the end user. Boyles says he did have a couple of semesters of computer programming in college, but he leaned heavily on friends and associates for the heavy lifting on the programming end.
Continuing to grow the system, Boyles says they have recently added precision monitoring of chemical injections, using the same principles as their original system—injecting just what the well needs, without wasting extra chemicals when they are not needed.
Efficient, Off-Grid Chemical Injection To Be Released at PBIOS in October
Louisiana-based Danos, which turned 70 years old in 2017, also found a way to solve one issue that led to a whole new way of using solar power to run chemical injection pumps in remote locations. Felix Dominique, Sr. Business Development of Automation at Danos, says they had opportunity to solve a problem for a customer in the Middle East. “We adapted our hydraulic expertise we’d developed over the years as well as our solar expertise, and kind of married the two along with all the chemical injection systems we’ve put together, and came up with a patentable idea.”
When solar powered chemical injection systems are used, the chemicals must run 24/7 but the solar power is not available at night. Nighttime battery power is usually managed by having the chemicals injected at intervals. Under that method, the pump over-injects when it does run in order for the chemical levels to average out. This wastes chemicals, according to Dominique.
The other popular method is to simply battery up and run the pumps constantly all night—an expensive capital expenditure, especially when spread out over an entire field.
Danos combined the two methods and mixed in their own expertise at hydraulics in order to make a more energy-efficient unit. With that, says Dominique, “We came up with a system where we are able to run our pumps on an intermittent basis where it’s most efficient, store that fluid, and then inject it on a continuous basis. What we’re actually able to do is to achieve higher injection pressures at higher volumes than what’s available on the existing market.”
When the pump makes its intermittent run, the hydraulic system stores the pressure, releasing it slowly as it injects the chemicals—not unlike blowing up a balloon and letting the pressure off slowly.
With data collected from the system’s sensors, operators can fine-tune injection rates to achieve the lowest practical operating expense.
Danos expects to roll the system out at the Permian Basin International Oil Show in October.
After decades in which technological progress consisted of a new drilling rig here and a better drill bit there, the current environment sees some of the most creative minds in the business involved in expanding knowledge and efficiencies at breakneck speeds. Fortunately, there is no speed limit on the information highway.
Paul Wiseman is a freelance writer in Midland.