Industrial computing evolves with the oil and gas industry
As oil and gas extraction moves to new locations—such as subsea oil sands and shale deposits, the computing systems that support these activities must adapt to function in these harsh environments.
It's not unusual to see volatility in the oil and gas industry. Prices ebb and flow based on production and refinery rates across the globe at any given time. Currently, we're in a high production cycle, which means prices are on somewhat of a downward slope.
However, there is something different about this particular production boom. Due to advances in technology, producers are now extracting large amounts of oil and gas from previously untapped sources.
The dramatic growth in unconventional oil sources such as subsea, oil sands, and shale deposits is making the process of extracting oil more complex. This means the technology that supports these endeavors must be more sophisticated as well.
For starters, any system that operates in these new environments-whether it is designed to automate processes or simply collect data-must be able to function properly in harsh environmental conditions. Oil extraction has always produced large amounts of data that had to be reviewed to head off problems that could cause a rig to be shut down. Now, with producers increasingly finding oil in places that require remote monitoring-such as subsea deposits-the need to capture data for field use, control, and analysis is even more important.
Collecting and managing large amounts of data in these harsh environments requires high-end, rugged computers designed to connect equipment at drilling sites across the globe. These computers also must provide remote users easy access to this critical data. Used for applications such as SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), control room management, exploration, and wellhead monitoring, these systems help create a safer and more productive environment. By connecting field staff with world-renowned experts, oil producers can make better critical decisions based on the evaluation of easily accessible, real-time data.
The case for rugged systems
As more systems and processes are being connected on the oilfield, the computing industry is making tremendous progress by incorporating computers and sensors that take equipment control and data processing to the next level.
Developers of embedded systems face a unique set of design challenges in this arena, and must deliver high-performance systems built to withstand rough handling and perform reliably in dusty conditions ranging from arctic cold to desert heat.
Rugged, industrial systems are proving their mettle-optimized for computing power and connectivity, meeting shock and vibration considerations, managing temperature and dust extremes, and ensuring the long-term reliable performance essential to oil and gas installations.
Oil and gas industry requirements are some of the most complex and demanding in the realm of embedded system design. Systems uniquely focus on reliability, challenging developers to deliver complete systems that are optimized for reliability and high mean time between failures (MTBF).
While avoiding downtime is essential in most embedded environments, it is critical in the oil and gas industry. System failure equates to downtime in oil production, which can rack up significant losses. Many drill sites are extremely remote, contributing complexity and compounding potential loss when considered with the extended time and resources that could be required to get a system up and running after failure. Reliable, rugged systems with long-term availability reduce in-field operational costs and the need for frequent personnel training. Best practices for computer systems designed for the oil and gas industry ideally include a spectrum of rugged design features, uninterrupted supply lines, and ready access to support. With connected systems, debugging of a system can be done remotely, saving time and money.
Oil and gas office settings are quite different from traditional office spaces. Systems are often housed in temporary structures that act as command centers; they offer shelter and a climate-controlled environment, yet are plagued by atmospheric contaminants such as dust. These command centers are in the field with the rest of the oil operation, and computing systems are often transported to their remote location by vehicle. Therefore, shock and vibration are important considerations, not only for transport to the field, but also for systems performing in close proximity to drilling platforms and pump systems.
Developers are addressing these types of environmental demands with features and capabilities specifically tuned to oil and gas, such as removable dust filters that eliminate the impact of dirt entering the system. Cable tie-downs and hold-down brackets for I/O and expansion cards brace computing systems against shock and vibration. Shock-mounted drive bays add stiffness in the chassis design, protecting systems during transport and while operating near the source of constant, heavy vibrations.
Tips for choosing the right system
When choosing a system to support oil and gas extraction operations, it's important to remember that not all industrial computers are created equally. The ideal system will come with a guaranteed long life for deployment, relying on long-term availability of components for continued performance. A system that's supported by the manufacturer is more likely to be revision controlled for ease of in-field maintenance.
Users in the field manage simple maintenance; however, a higher level of training is frequently requested by the end user. A global service presence is critical for oil and gas installations to more easily facilitate local training while also playing an essential role in providing necessary support to meet the primary goal of maximum system uptime.
Ideally, system support will be available in the region where the system is deployed. The global nature of oil and gas companies adds complexity to this requirement, and restricts the performance ability of firms with a single worldwide location. There are only a handful of major manufacturers with an expanded presence for both design and manufacturing in the U.S., Europe, and other locations worldwide. Most of the industry is composed of large firms with a single hub, or smaller regional firms without a global organization.
Intelligent systems are making a difference in oil production worldwide-connecting decision makers with critical data and improving the safety and productivity of drilling operations. Experts in embedded computing solutions provide indispensable engineering resources, sharing computing platform knowledge that ensures faster deployments of rugged systems. Downtime is minimized with rugged features backed by global technical support.
Unlocking new energy resources worldwide, new computing technology is enabling drilling in increasingly remote and challenging locations that were previously considered undrillable. Users can expect continued growth in this field, as more computers and sensors are deployed and connected. The rigors of oilfield computing are likely to grow in step with rigid demand for high-performance, ultra-rugged solutions optimized for reliability, high MTBF, and extended product lifetime.
- Maria Hansson works as a product manager for the Medical & Industrial Business Unit at Kontron. She holds a master of science in engineering from Lund University, Sweden.
- Edited by Sidney Hill, Jr., a CFE Media contributing content specialist.
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