Technology

Industry 4.0 to save hydrocarbons

 By Robin Wylie

The global industrial sector is on the cusp of a transformation…

The next generation of mechanical devices, with their increased automation, connectedness and data processing power, has prompted many analysts to herald the arrival of a new phase of the industrial revolution, known informally as “Industry 4.0.”
Industry 4.0 has no strict definition, however. It broadly refers to the rise of automation and data exchange that is currently taking place across the industrial sector, driven by things such as next-generation computing techniques and “cyber-physical systems” — mechanisms which are controlled or monitored by computer-based algorithms, and strongly tethered to the internet.
There has been much excitement about the potential of Industry 4.0 to transform the manufacturing industry. For instance, “smart factories” are being touted as the key to next generation manufacturing efficiency. But its application to the oil and gas industry could be every bit as revolutionary.

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Graphical depiction of the four stages of the industrial revolution

Smart exploration, smart drilling

The potential of Industry 4.0 to modernize the hydrocarbon industry starts even before a well has been drilled. Advanced data analytics — a segment of so-called “Big Data” — are now being increasingly used by the energy industry to create more accurate reservoir models, allowing them to target wells more precisely. Eni is at the forefront of this transition, with its new 18.6 petaflop HPC4 supercomputer — the most powerful industrial computer in the world — set to allow more refined exploration techniques using next-generation analytics.
Other Industry 4.0 technologies are being used to streamline the process of well drilling itself. The most promising of these is “automated drilling,” a popular technique which involves using various machines to perform drilling operations and make vital operational measurements automatically. Automated drilling techniques include replacing conventional hydraulic drill-floor machines with smart robots, and using downhole sensors — which can measure parameters such as flow pressure — to communicate with drilling equipment in order to automatically adjust well paths.
Automated drilling can reduce the need for human input, thereby increasing safety, as well as dramatically lowering drilling costs, by between 30 and 50 percent. Unsurprisingly, given these benefits, the technology is set to grow in the coming years: oilfield research company Kimberlite predicts that approximately 41 percent of the wells drilled up to 2022 will use automated drilling of some kind. Examples already in use include IntelliServ‘s “Wired Drill Pipe” and Norway’s “Robotic Drilling System.”

Eagle-eyed robots

As well as its role in automated drilling, robotic technology is also used by the hydrocarbon industry to identify unwanted leaks during production and transportation. During offshore drilling, for instance, automated submarine inspection machines, equipped with instruments such as sonar, cameras and other sensors, can detect leakages of oil or natural gas, saving significant time and money compared to the traditional approach of using human-controlled underwater vessels.
And on land, automated “methane-sniffing” drones and land-based robots are used to detect gas leaks from wells, pipelines or industrial facilities, offering similar advantages over human-based detection techniques. Examples include SMP‘s automated gas leak inspection robot, which travels along a gas pipe, and remotely analyzes the gas concentration in close proximity to potential leak points, and a robotic device developed by MIT which can search for gas leaks from inside pipelines.

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SMP's automated gas leak inspection robot (smprobotics.com)

Smart supply

Industry 4.0 looks set to transform the way we obtain hydrocarbons, but it also has the potential to radically change the way we use the energy which they produce. One of the big promises of the new industrial revolution are “smart grids” — electrical grids which incorporate a variety of new generation technologies to allow unprecedented control over how energy is supplied to consumers.
A key component of smart grids are “smart meters,” energy meters enabled with two-way communications, which allows them to work with the electrical grid to respond to electricity demand in real time. This reciprocity gives them a huge advantage over traditional meters, which merely register the amount of energy used.
Powered by smart meters, smart grids offer the potential to gather and process unprecedented quantities of data regarding energy usage. This should allow energy producers to meet their customers’ needs much more effectively, and pass on the savings to them. As Smart Grids begin to be implemented, the energy industry will have the opportunity to move into a new era of reliability, availability and efficiency.
Industry 4.0 is set to bring about pervasive changes in all areas of the energy industry. But we’re only at the start of “Energy 4.0,” and there is still no telling in what new directions it will take us. There are some technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), whose use in the energy industry is only just beginning to be imagined. Intelligent robots could someday use AI for automated hydrocarbon exploration, for instance, or supercomputers could use machine learning algorithms (a subset of AI) to optimize operations, and vastly improve their reservoir simulation capabilities.
The first phase of the industrial revolution took humanity from the waterwheel to train transport. The second and third phases saw the rise of mass production and digitization, respectively. Sitting at the start of the fourth phase, it’s exciting to look forward and imagine where we could be headed.

WATCH MORE: Energy Snack: Industry 4.0 by Eniday Staff

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.