Industrial Automation Networks Inc.
This author and industry observer had the opportunity to attendOTC (Offshore Technology Conference) 2014 in Houston in early May, and therefore had an opportunity to wander through the exhibition floor to see how automation is being deployed and used offshore – above and below the waves. It was good to see how technology, and in particular automation technology, is helping to make the offshore environment safer, more reliable, and cost effective than ever before.
The first general impression of the event, other than its sheer size, is the large number of international exhibitors, particularly fromAsia. However, most of these companies are hardware manufacturers (i.e. valves, drilling tools, fabricators, etc.) rather than automation equipment suppliers. The country pavilions, however, did have some interesting items in them, though in some cases it was hard to get access to all the smaller booths under the umbrella (or indeed find them) – often because the numbering they used was different than the rest of the hall.
My observations can be categorized into the following broad categories: subsea, communications, asset management, and sensors; so let's take a look at each of these individually.
Due to the remote and harsh conditions subsea, equipment for this environment must be at a minimum semi-autonomous (able to continue operating without continuous surface communications), which implicitly leads to some level of automation. The most obvious automated subsea equipment are the production pads themselves, though I saw little of that equipment other than perhaps the chokes and valves. However, what I did see – that may not be considered typical examples of automation – were the submersible vehicles. By their nature, these vehicles require a high level of automation for steering, maintaining orientation (gyroscopes), manipulation of the various motors, robot arms, etc., that allow them to perform the tasks for which they are designed under the guidance of a remote operator. In the event of lost surface communications for extended periods of time, these devices also have to be able to autonomously continue or abort their mission without jeopardizing the submersible.
As might be expected, a number of exhibitors demonstrated how products developed for the onshore market had been adapted for use offshore, whether that was development of specific applications (software and operator assistants), marine certification, or reduction of weight to provide the same capability using less power or space. A number of the larger exhibitors in this category showed how their equipment could be used in harsh environments above or below the surface.
The most visible communications components on display were the wide range of subsea cables, or perhaps more accurately umbilical cords, that connect the ocean floor with the surface. These cables are engineering marvels that combine a wide range of communications media in close proximity to each other, while being able to withstand the rigours of the subsea environment. The designs also keep them electrically (EMI/RFI, etc.) isolated so that the message on the cables do not degrade during transmission.
There were also a number of advances in topsides communications. The exhibition hall featured a number of rugged and seaworthy wireless products which offer a means of connecting previously uneconomic devices/alarms, or simply eliminating the weight associated with cabling infrastructure.
Keeping track of things, and more importantly individuals in real time – with minimal intervention by the individual or asset – is becoming an important component of HSE programs. Knowing where everyone is can save precious time in the event of an abnormal situation, and can also be used to provide alerts in the event that someone does not move enough. This was the innovation that sparked my interest in OTC – being able to identify a potential "man down" remotely.
Installing a wireless backbone network also makes it possible to provide remote support for field personnel, enabling them to access the maintenance network while "on the floor." For example, these technologies enable workers to view data manuals off the server remotely, or check on stores/inventory from the equipment itself. This can be a particularly useful tool for checking on the availability of replacement parts prior to disassembling equipment, thereby improving productivity and overall equipment reliability.
Using the wireless infrastructure now finding its way offshore, a couple of exhibitors were showing how passive sensors can measure strain and temperature readings, and communicate them to a central gateway for retransmission to the central controllers. Because passive sensors have a limited range, the gateways must be located within a few meters of the sensor proper, and from there connect to the larger network transmitting the signal back to the control center. So, to some extent, the development of these sensor networks depends on the broader wireless network developments and adoption rates.
Though difficult to find the "automation" offerings at OTC, they certainly were evident – in some cases as part of a large multi-national space; in others within the far more cozy country pavilions; and then also in separate stands. Like always, just as interesting as the displays and products are the opportunities to network with peers and through them learn not only about the products but also how they are being applied or (just as much fun) how they might be applied with a little ingenuity or imagination. After all, the original product is the result of someone's ingenuity, so it only seems fair that as engineers and technical people we take that next step to determine the problems that these devices can solve. Keep that thought in mind next time you attend a trade show, conference, or exhibition because that is how you will add and receive real value from the event.
Ian Verhappen, P.Eng. is an ISA Fellow, ISA Certified Automation Professional (CAP), Automation Hall of Fame member and a recognized authority on process analyzer sample systems, Foundation Fieldbus and industrial communications technologies. Verhappen provides consulting services in the areas of field level industrial communications, process analytics, and hydrocarbon facility automation. Feedback is always welcome via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.