Digital Transformation

Mastering the Digital Oil Field One App at a Time: The Rise of DIY Engineering Software

Start-and-stop data management initiatives and a mishmash of partial solutions are no longer viable for managing the digital oil field. Data management should be transformed from a cost center to a cash-flow-generating function.


For most of its history, the oil and gas business was largely powered by people. In fact, before the advent of mainframes and massive data centers in the 60s, “computer” was a job title. Fast forwarding to today, the physical, human-powered oil field has given way to the digital oil field, where data are the lifeblood of the energy enterprise. In the digital oil field, the success of an exploration and production (E&P) company hinges on its ability to consume a daily torrent of data, underscoring the need for the right software and digital skill sets. Yet the industry is stuck in a digital rut as a long-ingrained way of thinking and poorly aligned skill set impede effective management of the digital oil field. To move forward with confidence into these unprecedented times requires an emphasis on new skill sets, where rapidly building software solutions to empower energy professionals is as central to the energy enterprise as its engineering, geoscience, land, and other business functions.

Accruing Disposable Knowledge

Pop Quiz:

When was the last time you solved for A2 + B2 = C2?

Unless you are a civil engineer, surveyor, or navigator, probably not since college. Even in those jobs, the Pythagorean Theorem is built into instrumentation and software. Those who need it to do their work don't actually do the calculations. For most of us, it is disposable knowledge, and our education system needs to stop pumping it into our brains. So, rather than learning about the hypotenuse, high schools should tell stories about Warren Buffett and impart essential investment knowledge.

Our industry is a fascinating one when it comes to the types of knowledge we prioritize, retain, and transfer from generation to generation. In an industry historically reluctant to embrace new technologies, the last decade has been a Cambrian Explosion of innovation and uptake of diverse technologies in the field and office. From the latest generation of fractures and well designs to the digital oil field and internet of things (IoT), energy professionals are surrounded by technology that is propelling the industry forward, yet our knowledge, best practices, and ways of thinking lag decades behind the innovation curve. The learning curve must catch up.

Disposable knowledge falls into a couple of buckets for oil and gas "knowledge workers." First, there is the antiquated training that so many college students continue to receive, skills that only serve academic purposes and leave energy professionals unprepared for what awaits in the digital oil field. Then, there is knowledge acquired on the job, like learning WITSML, which stands for wellsite information transfer standard markup language, to decipher data streaming from a rig. No one should know what WITSML is any more than we need to know what HTML is to read a webpage.

Despite the abundance of digital solutions that can simplify workflows, automate manual processes, and make the lives of energy professionals easier, back-of-the-envelope calculations, spreadsheets, and manual workflows persist. It is a self-perpetuating pattern that can only be broken in the classroom with a modernized curriculum and, within the energy enterprise, a laser focus on leveraging data-driven insights to cut costs and drive performance. The new digital oil field skill set is data and software centric.

Energy Professionals as Data Wranglers

The great crew change has intersected with an unprecedented time for the oil and gas industry that has brought the urgency for digital oil field skill sets to the forefront. This is good news, as a new generation of young, tech-savvy energy professionals will lead the way ahead. On the education front, our industry's professional associations have demonstrated considerable forward-thinking with an increasing number of data science workshops and continuing education programs aimed at fostering that digital oil field skill set.

The stage is set for fundamentally reshaping the way the oil and gas industry operates with widespread digital transformation in the field, office, and minds of energy professionals. Yet our new generation of data junkies and energy professionals who naturally gravitate to digital solutions is held back by the old way of thinking and weighed down with disposable knowledge.

Historically, many E&P companies have been willing to throw people at data management and analysis problems. The continuous flow of both structured and unstructured data sources streaming from the digital oil field is only growing in its volume, velocity, and variety. It is a systemic challenge that requires a big data solution, yet most energy professionals are drinking from the firehose. That's why we see so much data wrangling as energy professionals spend the bulk of their day just accessing, organizing, and sorting the data they need to start what is all too often manual analysis. Start-and-stop data management initiatives and a mishmash of partial solutions are no longer viable. Data wrangling is a disposable skill set, and data management should be transformed from a cost center to a cash-flow-generating function that provides energy professionals with on-demand, analysis-ready data.

Self-Service App Development

Most software companies want users to believe that they are the only solution for their business challenge. For decades, those solutions were either off-the-shelf products or a framework of building blocks that could be assembled to fit business needs, the tradeoff being lower cost and rapid deployment versus long time frames but fit-for-purpose functionality. However, neither approach was agile enough to keep pace with the evolving complexities of the oil and gas business, leaving energy professionals to fit a square peg into a round hole or leaving E&P companies with brittle and expensive-to-maintain, one-off solutions. There is a third software development approach that eliminates costs, fast tracks business solutions to the front lines, and leaves intellectual property and competitive advantage in the hands of each E&P company.

Customizable dashboards put critical data at engineers’ fingertips.

No one knows an energy company's challenges like the people who work in the office and field every day; and talented energy professionals can struggle to build fit-for-purpose data analysis and business solutions that can give their organization the upper hand, increase performance, and reduce costs. E&P companies and energy professionals now have a complete application development framework that enables them to quickly build exactly what they need while enriching their knowledge with the right skills.

A simple example: Say you want to analyze static and mechanical sticking indicators to prevent expensive stuck pipe interventions. Even with a couple of rigs, you will need to onboard WITSML streams into a database, write backend code to process live data and analyze potential issues, write frontend code to allow engineering staff to interact with the sticking analysis, and deploy it in a way that is readily accessible via laptop or mobile devices. This simple example introduces many complexities and costs—even opportunity costs, as staff tasked with drilling a well spend hours wrangling data and writing code. Scale it up and it is a nightmare scenario to deploy a single surveillance solution across basins and worldwide operations.

One supermajor is now taking advantage of Corva Dev Center to rapidly implement a sticking surveillance solution over a vast global operational footprint. Because they are standardized on Corva’s drilling analytics platform, the process leverages a robust cloud infrastructure purpose-built to aggregate WITSML data feeds in real time, delivering a quality-controlled pipeline of data into Dev Center apps. This empowers the operator’s staff to focus 100% on creating a solution—sticking surveillance or anything else they need—with the complexity of coding reduced to plugging preassembled templates, data streams, and user interface components together. Then, it is easily deployed instantly with a single click. This do-it-yourself app creation approach is as transformative as Apple’s introduction of the iPhone, except now each E&P company can build their own app and own what they build, or they can swap apps with others and tap into a growing ecosystem of digital oil field solutions.

Corva’s Hookload Broomstick app provides engineers with real-time torque and drag monitoring for their operations so they can quickly identify concerning trends and mitigate major hazards like stuck pipe and production-casing damage.
Source: Corva

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Circling back to fostering the right skill sets to master the digital oil field: coding, or rather the ability to create software solutions to discrete oil and gas business challenges, is a critical capability in an increasingly data-driven world. Rather than learning IronPython or another programming language (disposable knowledge), the new, self-service app development framework empowers energy professionals to shape data in real time instead of wrangling it to discover design patterns and the value of abstracting and reusing elements. Energy professionals can now troubleshoot, imagine entirely new business solutions, and bring them to life with ease while accumulating valuable analytical skills. That is the goal: enable today’s oil and gas knowledge worker, overwhelmed by the digital oil field, to spend less time worrying about data and more time on high-value, business-enhancing analysis.

Agility must be the mantra in the engineering department and across the energy enterprise as shifting economics make a basin profitable one day and unprofitable the next. Agility is paramount to navigate through the energy transition, adapt to change, and pivot to meet evolving market forces head-on. Mastering the digital oil field by harnessing the flood of data and building fit-for-purpose business analytics are the essential capabilities that will empower teams to adapt and move. It is time to train and migrate skills to the information age and kickstart a generation of innovation. "Bring your own app" is the next evolution of the digital oil field.

[The article was sourced from the author by TWA editor Stephen Forrester.]