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A Key Consideration when Automating Large Wellpads: Can the Automation Scale to Fulfill Complex Site Requirements Long Term?

Multi-wellpad development in U.S. shale territories has changed the game in terms of the scope and complexity of automation required to operate these sites efficiently. This new game is prompting oil and gas companies to evaluate their approach, with increased efficiencies and standardization rising to the top of the list when designing their facilities. The roller coaster ride of oil prices in the last five years, including the most recent price war and COVID-induced downturn, has brought new urgency to the matter. While companies are seeking to invest in new technologies that will reduce costs yet maintain the necessary production levels, the technology selection process is not as clear cut as some may think it is. Making the right choice requires a thorough understanding of how an automation platform will adapt to changing site needs, particularly when the market moves into more positive territory and demand increases.

When selecting a next-generation automation platform, an engineering manager or operational leader should guide their approach by considering three important questions:

  1. Can it easily scale and does it offer the architecture, control, and power requirements to handle large, complex sites?
  2. Does it offer truly integrated measurement, and
  3. Is it easy to use and maintain?

Let’s explore the scalability question further in this first article in our series of three articles.

There is an alphabet soup of existing control technologies, including RTUs, PLCs, EFMs, and SCADA. New emerging digital, IoT technologies such as edge computing, MQTT, machine learning, and cloud-based technologies are also being looked at as production companies determine their automation, SCADA, and IoT direction for the future. Much of what is happening today is blurring the lines between the different technologies. It no longer matters if a technology is referred to as an RTU or a PLC. What does matter is the capability that the automation platform offers to address the challenges of developing a standardized approach for multi-wellpad automation. One of the most important factors to consider is how easily and quickly the automation platform can be scaled across a large organization and asset base. The modern RTU, such as Emerson’s FB3000 RTU, offers the same key features, openness, and scalability of a PLC while providing additional flexibility, ease of use, and tools which support standardized approaches with fully integrated measurement capability.

The automation platform’s ability to scale from small applications to large, complex implementations with multiple wells and distributed site assets requires the flexibility to meet greater architectural, control, and power demands. Modern controllers like Emerson’s FB3000 RTU are highly scalable from a processing power and I/O perspective, reducing the footprint on the site and allowing more and more I/O and control to be in a centralized device, utilizing remote I/O.

Just utilizing remote I/O, however, may not always be the best approach. Platforms that allow distributed control and measurement around the wellpad in combination with remote I/O offer the best flexibility to handle complex pad architectures since changes are likely as the site is further developed over several years.

Another important consideration that relates to scalability is the control capability the automation platform has to offer. PLCs have always offered a very flexible, powerful, and open programming environment of IEC 61131 programming tools. Modern RTUs offer this same capability while going well beyond by offering additional ease of use with out-of-the-box, simple control tools that can quickly be configured instead of programmed for common applications. Persona-based user profiles and configuration management tools are also in place, making it much easier to manage and control the application load across the assets and the organization. For companies that prefer not to engineer their own control load from scratch, some RTU manufacturers like Emerson have gained significant industry expertise over the last twenty years with a strong focus on core market customers in oil and gas, unlike other automation providers that are serving a wide array of end markets with the same platform. By focusing on a single industry, powerful yet productized oil and gas applications are available to manage common needs around produced fluids management, truck hauling, and artificial lift optimization, providing companies with more options to standardize the production process around a consistent set of practices.

Finally, power requirements, while becoming less critical, are still important to understand. Controllers with lower power requirements provide additional flexibility for developing an asset over time. This approach provides the flexibility to get a production site online quickly using low power while the rest of the infrastructure buildout follows at a later date.

The ability to fulfill current requirements while enabling for expansion is an important consideration when selecting an automation platform. Achieving the necessary site architecture long term requires the right combination of scalability, as it relates to processing power and I/O, along with the flexibility to obtain as much control as needed with tools and systems that are designed with users in mind. Our next article in this series focuses on how producers can further gain efficiencies by standardizing on truly integrated measurement capability.

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