Industry must raise the bar in standards development to push drilling automation

Posted on 17 July 2012

By Katie Mazerov, contributing editor

The shift toward automation isn’t likely to usher in a new generation of standards, but it will provide the drilling industry with the opportunity to better utilize existing standards and more actively participate in the ongoing standardization process – the “shalls and the shoulds” — to ensure that best practices are being followed. That message is among key points Donald Dunn, engineering supervisor  for Aramco Services Company, is delivering in a presentation at the SPE Well Construction Automation – Preparing for the Big Jump Forward workshop on 16-18 July in Vail, Colo.

“The International Society of Automation (ISA) currently has more than 100 standards, many of which have been in place for many years,” said Mr Dunn, who is also vice president of the Standards and Practices Board of ISA, a nonprofit organization that develops standards, provides education and training and certifies industry automation professionals.

“Standardization is an ongoing process, with new standards constantly being developed as needs arise,” he said. While the drilling industry has done a good job engaging in standards for structures and equipment, it needs to expand its level of participation, he suggests. “Standards can provide the industry with the ability to harness knowledge that has been vetted to improve best practices from an engineering and automation standpoint. We need more end-user companies to commit the resources from their engineering staffs to participate in the process of developing these standards.”

Among the ISA standards that will have an impact on the oil and gas industry as it becomes more automated are those regarding alarm systems; control system integration; industrial automation and control system security, including cyber security; and wireless systems for automation, including wireless data communication.

“There are many automation standards associated with process data, which provide companies the ability to mine data, improve operation performance and enhance reliability, safety and environmental key performance indicators (KPIs),” Mr Dunn continued. For example, Saudi Aramco has a drilling center manned 24/7 by subject matter experts, at its corporate headquarters in Dhahran. Every active well, whether it is in the drilling phase or producing, can be monitored from a central control room.

This use of automation – and the corresponding standards — to capture information in a central control center will become increasingly valuable as the industry loses its core of subject matter experts with the growing number of retiring baby boomers, he added.

Promoting Standards

Standards are promoted though a variety of international associations, including the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in North America, as well as the International Electrical Commission (IEC) and the International Standards Organization (ISO), which writes standards primarily from the European Union perspective.

“In North America, unlike other parts of the world, standards are typically developed by the industry in an open process that allows any affected party to participate,” Mr Dunn continued. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) oversees the integrity of the standardization process with five essential elements: openness; lack of dominance by a particular entity; balanced participation; consensus and the right of appeal. Outside North America, the process is different, with greater participation by governmental agencies, which do not adhere to the same essential elements, he noted.

Standards are designed to establish an accepted level of acceptable engineering practices that become Recognized and Generally Accepted Good Engineering Practices (RAGAGEP), often referenced in actions or findings by regulatory agencies following an incident such as the 2010 Macondo spill.

“It is much better for end users such as drilling contractors to participate proactively in the development and implementation of standards than having a regulatory agency telling the industry what level of standardization to implement because of a catastrophic incident,” Mr Dunn said. “If companies don’t participate in the standardization process, they are abdicating that role to their competitors. It is prudent for anyone who has a stake in the game to make an upfront investment to ensure that standards are being implemented and that their companies are conducting business responsibly, especially when it comes to safety and the environment.”

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