Advanced control technology puts performance, safety above all

CAD Control Systems and Siemens Industry partner to bring continuous improvement to the oil exploration industry, adding reliability and efficiency to existing blow-out preventer control systems.


The new controller adds improved reliability, more sophisticated display capabilities, and streamlined wiring. Courtesy: CAD Control SystemsIn the oil exploration world, performance and safety rule. Keeping those always top-of-mind challenge companies like CAD Control Systems, a BOP (blow-out preventer) control system manufacturer, and Siemens Industry. They have been working together for more than a decade building BOP control systems for drilling rigs, and when the opportunity arose for CAD Control Systems to participate in a pilot program with its longtime business partner, the company welcomed the challenge.

The end result was the refinement of an existing BOP control system to include Siemens S7-1500 PLC. The move not only improved reliability, display capabilities, and wiring procedures, it also cut product configuration and programming time through the use of TIA Portal, Siemens' engineering software. Further-and perhaps most importantly-it helped set the stage to meet anticipated future regulatory requirements by enabling the remote diagnostics and data collection needed to create a safer and more efficient industry overall.

Evolutionary improvements

The long-standing relationship between the two companies led to this collaboration. Siemens' products have played a significant role in CAD Control products for more than a decade. "A majority of Siemens standard equipment is hazardous-atmosphere rated," points out Brian Wright, CAD's chief operations officer. "That was a major factor that drew us to Siemens in the first place, and led us to adopting their products as standard."

Providing equipment to global drilling contractors in more than 30 countries from its Broussard, La., headquarters, CAD Controls emphasizes performance over cost, taking pride in its use of the highest-quality components, sound and proven engineering practices, and the latest technology to produce equipment that is safe, reliable, and durable. "We are very specialized," says Wright. "We maintain a very high level of quality. We design a high-end, highly engineered, reliable product."

With BOP control, there is no margin for error and no room for failure. A BOP is a valve that closes around the drill pipe when required during drilling. It is critical to monitoring, maintaining, and managing a well and to the safety of all personnel. "In its simplest terms, the control system is a hydraulic power unit that closes the BOP," explains Wright. "They are unique because they must provide very high volume at very high pressure in an extremely short period of time, and they must function in highly hazardous atmospheres and explosive gas environments."

When Siemens approached CAD Control about participating in the pilot program for its S7-1500 PLC, CAD Control wanted to explore the potential benefits. "We were pleased Siemens considered us an important-enough business partner to ask us to help in this way," says Wright, "and assisting in this kind of new product development is good for us as well as Siemens. We didn't have any issues with our system as it was, but this was an opportunity for improvement, to make a better product for everyone. These kinds of efforts also can help improve the industry as a whole."

As part of the program, a system equipped with the S7-1500 was rolled out onto a predetermined platform after in-house testing. The results were very positive, and CAD Control hopes to expand use of the controller throughout its product line within the next 12 months. "These changes were really evolutionary," says Jonathan LeBlanc, CAD Control Systems' senior electrical engineer. "We'd been using Siemens' S7-300 Series PLC for quite a few years, and we have a good system with that controller. However, we felt the S7-1500 would be even better, saving us time in engineering, building, wiring, designing, and, most importantly, programming. And we believe the diagnostics in the S7-1500 will make troubleshooting faster once the equipment is in the field. Right now, we're using both controllers, but I see a point in the future where we will migrate totally to the S7-1500."

Technology to improve performance

The change that CAD Control has been undertaking goes beyond the hardware. The company is also changing its mechanism for writing programs and adopting Siemens' TIA Portal along with the new controller. "We became familiar with TIA Portal along with the S7-1200 controller, which we use on some of our other test systems," explains LeBlanc. "Once the S7-1500 was available, Siemens brought us a prototype. We tested it, recognized its benefits, and started trying to determine where we could apply it and the software that goes along with it."

LeBlanc cited a particular group of TIA portal capabilities that got his company's attention:

  • Software organization-"We really like the layout of the software, the way we can separate parts of a program," says LeBlanc. "For example, TIA Portal allows us to separate sections of the symbol table. Alarms go into one folder, inputs into another, and commands into a third. When we are troubleshooting-trying to find out what happened with a command somewhere, for instance-we don't have to search through a thousand symbols. We look through a set of maybe a hundred commands."
  • Efficiency and ease of use-"It is easier to find what you need during programming and testing," notes LeBlanc. "It helps you find the part of the code you are having an issue with. It is a big time saver, saving us a good 10% or 15% in total programming time." Wright believes that is just a start and the figures will get better.
  • Controller performance and reliability-Improved wiring techniques, including several features on the wiring harnesses, make wiring faster, easier, and neater. And the built-in diagnostic display will be a real benefit for troubleshooting in the field, adds LeBlanc. "A wiring error or loose connection can be difficult to find. With the display on the S7-1500, anyone familiar with the system can go to the unit and determine exactly where a problem is located. Then, we can help them figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. There is no need to plug in a laptop to try to figure out what happened or have a technician travel halfway around the world to solve a problem. It is a time and money saver."
  • User-friendly HMI-To extend display capabilities, CAD Control began using TIA Portal with the S7-1200 to display system status remotely, including a system event log for basic diagnostics. "We made the Comfort Panel standard for remote safe areas," says LeBlanc. "It saves real estate-taking the place of several analog indicators and lamps-and is a more user-friendly interface."

Preventing environmental disaster

The display is designed to provide support for troubleshooting in the field, without the need to plug in a laptop. Courtesy: CAD Control SystemsSince the 2010 Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon oil rig incident, the oil exploration industry has sought to promote data gathering that might help in analysis-and even prevention-of such incidents, much the way an airliner black box has helped analyze airplane crashes and build a safer airline industry. As a result of the pilot program, CAD Control also has been able to expand system capabilities for remote control from multiple points.

Wright believes eventually the U.S. government will require remote diagnostics and control on all floating drilling operations. "Once it does," he says, "operations around the world will follow suit. We've looked at aeronautical, nuclear, and naval standards to see how they might help the energy industry, specifically the oil exploration industry, to improve products, processes, and procedures in ways that would increase safety and protect the environment. Part of that effort involves being able to acquire, store, and transmit data. Then, if something happens, information will be available at an off-site location for diagnosis, if not for immediate help then at least for forensics."

Remote diagnostics and data collection, however, are still in their infancy in this industry. "When drilling is done in previously unexplored areas, or in deep water, not a lot of data exists," says Wright. "CAD Control is, and continues to be, instrumental in incorporating diagnostic and data collection capabilities into our systems as well as adding them to existing systems in the field that we did not originally manufacture. And Siemens is a valued partner in making these modifications through the capability of its products."

Going forward

CAD Control plans to incorporate the S7-1500 Series into its equipment as quickly as practical. Following the Deepwater Horizon disaster, oil producers and drillers are scrutinizing BOP control systems more and more and equipment requirements are expected to grow. Demand for a higher-end product is anticipated, and CAD Control wants to position itself to help meet that demand.

"Jonathan and I are certain the S7-1500 Series offers better alternatives for us," says Wright. "The features of this controller will be required in the future. Yes, there is a cost difference, but when you look at the cost of a problem, the value of a safe and high-quality control system is apparent. We enjoy the opportunity to partner with Siemens in pilot programs such as this one because it gives us the opportunity to drive the industry and to drive performance, both of which are critical to us."

Colm Gavin is a product marketing manager, engineering software, for Siemens Industry.


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Key concepts:

  • Offshore oil remains an important energy source, but environmental concerns have gained importance.
  • Creating mechanisms to gather, store, and analyze performance data will drive improvements in control systems connected to drilling operations.

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