May 1, 2000
This column recently addressed some key issues facing the well construction sector...

Answering the critical direction questions

"It is a commonplace of modern technology that there is a high measure of certainty that problems have solutions before there is knowledge of how they are to be solved."
John Kenneth Galbraith

This column recently addressed some key issues facing the well construction sector: February - when the industry will further embrace under-balanced drilling technologies; March - the new e-commerce world and how it affects our "good-old-boy" industry; April - intelligent completions and the critical questions surrounding final deployment of multi-functional, flexible, and most importantly, intelligent well installations.

These column topics have one thing in common - they suggest a point of "critical mass," where answers are being sought for pivotal questions of industry direction. The evolution of new concepts and the development of technologies to support new ideas are put on hold, while these critical "direction" questions are answered. In the meantime, this puts undue pressure on existing technologies, possibly forcing vendors to push existing technology, simply because there is no alternative. Pushing technology, while important for product development and healthy to a certain point, can result in disastrous effects.

There are also potential step-changes in the industry's growth and evolution to be considered. Wolfgang E. Schollnberger, Chairman, Offshore Technology Conference 2000, put this step-change into perspective. "This is not our father's oilfield anymore." The statement, in perspective, is not meant to criticize the contribution of thousands of individuals who helped build the petroleum industry, but more of a compliment to those early individuals, who must be followed by technologists building on the framework that they created.

Schollnberger further added that OTC 2000 reflects an overriding change in the industry - the move to more of an "e-oilfield." Not a virtual, inanimate industry, where things just happen magically, but a more intelligent, digitally connected oilfield. For example, the OTC 2000 conference will have 195 new exhibitors, of which 40% are e-commerce/e-business related. Everything from the way we conduct accounting in the industry, to how we explore, find, and develop reserves is becoming more "intelligent" and interconnected.

Risers: a focus area for step change

An example of an industry issue at a critical decision point, and one of great concern today, is drilling riser management. Almost every deepwater issues discussion involves some facet of managing the riser. As exploration activities move into deeper water, the issue of how to manage this "life-line" to the seafloor, effectively and safely, becomes more critical.

Existing conventional riser technologies eventually will be pushed to operational limits. Ongoing engineering design and development of lighter risers capable of dealing with severe loop currents effectively will extend these limits further, but also will delay the inevitable question: "When do we change the current way of thinking, and go to optional concepts?"

Advances in under-balanced drilling technologies, key components for riserless mode drilling, are showing that they are ready to become a part of ultra-deepwater drilling solutions, and raising the ante for other needed technologies to keep pace.

However, extending conventional riser technology requires the development of larger drillships, often necessary to support heavy riser systems. With rare exception, exploration into ultra-deepwater with current technologies will mean building larger vessels to support the increased riser weight loads. That eventuality could make most technical experts and financial planners cringe.

The economic benefits of large new-age drillships have yet to be realized, and cost over-runs seem to outnumber successful ultra-deepwater projects. In some situations, ship orders have been delayed or cancelled altogether while the industry waits to see what is going to happen next. Meanwhile, more efficient drilling techniques and practices are shortening well spud-to-total depth time, meaning less time on location and under contract. As long as the industry is robust and plenty of ultra-deepwater drilling projects are available, this is not a problem. The vessel can move from project to project with very little reduction or interruption in cash flow.

For the next 3-6 years, the industry will benefit greatly from discussions on how to use existing riser equipment more effectively. In fact, the upcoming Deepwater Riser Management Forum in June (sponsored by Offshore) will help define the major challenges and yield solutions to common riser problems, including the following:

  • Stationkeeping in ultra-deepwater
  • Vortex induced vibrations
  • Riser fatigue prediction.

Financial analysis and technological questions will continue to dominate project decision-making in deepwater for some time. But, at a point in the future, the simple question - "where do we continue to put our money" - will surface. At that point, the industry has saturated the extension of current technology, and the reality of a step-change in direction will become widely evident.

Rock bits: not necessarily "dumb" iron

"Technology presumes there's just one right way to do things, and there never is."
Robert M. Pirisig

In the world of well construction cutting tools, there is an abundance of alternatives available - a virtual sea of products from which to choose. Disorientation is a constant problem when trying to find the right alternative for a particular application. The basic mill tooth, or rock bit as a lot of people call it, is no exception. Rock bits have been used in the well construction business for over half a century. Engineering improvements and re-designs by rock bit manufacturers over the decades has given the drilling industry this multitude of bit variations to sort through.

I took some time recently to visit several bit manufacturing companies to get an impression of how the confusion arises, but also what goes into producing a rock bit and how to sort through the mountain of product information on each one.

At the end of the see-and-learn excursions, I came away with a new-found respect for these works of art. Your response is certain: "a PDC bit, yes, but a rock bit - a work of art?" Yes, absolutely. Although a rock bit doesn't retain the glamorous image held by a PDC bit, and cannot adorn itself with expensive jewelry (industrial diamonds, etc.), a great deal of care goes into producing a rock bit. In fact, the time from start to finish in the manufacturing process of a rock bit is longer and more hands-on than with fixed cutter (PDC, impregnated, insert, etc.) bits.

The size of the manufacturing equipment used for both type bits is even disproportional to the current market value of the final product. Rock bit manufacturing requires large forging furnaces to produce the bit body and cone lugs (arms), large carborizing chambers to harden the steel with high temperature and a penetrating carbon-rich atmosphere, and various other work stations to perform hard facing, gage protection, and final assembly tasks. This is a lot of capital investment for a vital drilling tool alternative, with substantially lower revenue, compared to insert and fixed-cutter sister products.

The individuals who play a part in bringing a bit to the "end of the line, and out the door," include specialized and trained technicians, welders, and machine operators. And yes, you can call them artists, because they create a highly engineered drilling product literally from a chunk of steel. So, the next time you're picking up a rock bit to drill that undistinguished section of the well construction program, think again about the engineering and effort that went into that product to ensure it does the job and comes back to the surface in one piece.