Capital cost, use value, and payback for geoscience visualization systems

Oct. 1, 2000
Immersive technologies the norm in five years
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The past three years have seen a revolution in the oil and gas industry in the application of visualization technologies to the interpretation and analysis of data. The availability of large theater systems, smaller desk-side systems, and even desktop systems, supported by new and more powerful software, now allow geo-professionals to view and interact with data in new and innovative ways. Visualization is changing the way business is done in all segments of the industry.

To date, the movement towards the application of immersive visualization techniques has been driven largely by faith that these technologies have the capability of producing real value. However, a sufficient number of systems are now in place to establish a track record. This allows us to draw the first tentative assessments of the real dollar value to be derived from the application of immersive visualization technologies.

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This article is a brief summary of the results derived from interviews with 60 oil and gas companies in all areas of operations globally who shared their experiences with visualization systems. The data presented are generally comparative, although we have attempted to establish some credible limits for the upside of visualization in petroleum computing.

State of industry

At the present time, geophysicists and engineers use visualization systems more than geologists do. Visualization seems to have reached its apex in applications for asset teams. This is due to the fact that asset teams, by their very nature, combine professionals from different disciplines, and a visual presentation of data provides both an effective and efficient methodology for allowing these individuals to cooperate.

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In examining the distribution of activities affected by visualization, exploration and production (E&P) lead the way, followed by drilling. This is understandable in light of the fact that E&P software has been in development more than 20 years and is now reasonably mature. Also, the type of information that is used in E&P is particularly amenable to visual presentation.

Therefore, the concentration of products in the upstream area is not unexpected. In the future, however, more multi-disciplinary visualization products - those which combine disciplines of various types and support the detailed construction of advanced reservoir models - will be the emphasis of most of the major developers of visualization products.

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Within oil and gas companies today, the distribution of work across visualization products shows a growing trend for application of desktop systems. The results of our study show that 65% of work classified as visual or graphic is being performed on desktop systems, with 30% performed using both desktop and visualization center products. Only 5% of the work reported in the interviews was done exclusively using large visualization center or theater-type systems.

The apparent trend within the industry is to bring more and more technology to the desktop. This will allow the individual end-user to perform most tasks in the privacy and quiet of the office rather than in the mixed environment of a visualization theater. Of course, there is no substitute for large screen projection systems or for caves when reconciling differences in interpretation or opinion. The majority of companies surveyed indicated their large visualization systems offer significant value in this area.

Costs and value

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The purpose of this article is to examine the current perception and actuality of the cost and value of visualization. In this, we deal with the perception of the value being derived from the product and attempt to establish realistic values for the actual return on investment and the risk-reward ratio that derives from the application of today's visualization products.

Throughout the interviews, most individuals said that such systems are effective in improving the quality of interpretation, thereby reduc- ing the risk inherent in any drilling or production decision.

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There was near unanimity among the companies, regardless of area of operation, that the visualization systems installed within those firms were worth the price they paid for them. Only a small segment, primarily among smaller companies, indicated that there were questions regarding the actual value of the work being performed by advanced visualization systems, particularly when viewed in light of the relatively high cost of immersive visualization platforms.

These results are reflected in the table, which indicates the average investment companies have made in visualization products. With any new technology, particularly one with a relatively large price tag, the major multinational companies will be those who exploit the technology first. This seems to be indicated in the table.

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Of the companies reporting, it is apparent that the average investment on a single large-scale immersive visualization system is greater than $500,000, and usually more than $1 million. For smaller companies, the average investment is somewhat less, which is understandable in light of the budgets available for the purchase of such products. However, with an average price tag of $500,000 or more, an individual visualization system will have to produce significant results in order to be judged as cost effective.

In breaking this down to a finer degree of granularity, we found that the average number of desktop systems which supported some type of visualization, either on screen or using glasses or other viewing devices, is also higher among major companies than among independent sized companies.

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The distribution of large visualization centers is more than twice as great among major multinationals than the distribution found among independents. Unfortunately, there is a range of systems, which seem to fall within the general term "desktop visualization," which includes both true visualization products and products that approximate 3-D projections on a flat screen. This overlap makes it difficult to quantify the actual products within this class.

Desktop visualization systems outnumber the visualization centers by hundreds to one. Yet, when viewed in terms of the cost invested, only account for about 25% of the invested cost. On the surface, at least, this seems to indicate that these are a better value than the large visualization centers.

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However, comments derived from our interviews also indicate that the collaborative efforts possible through a large visualization center or cave system have a broad range of less tangible benefits. The large visualization systems are required for collaborative projects, since they offer advantages that simply cannot be accomplished on smaller systems.

The bulk of the information derived indicates that visualization systems have paid for themselves, some of them quite handsomely. In nearly 50% of responses, indications from companies were that the visualization systems had more than paid for their purchase, support, and use costs during the first two years of operation.

We further inquired about approximate values of the greatest successes achieved using visualization products. The oil industry has been rife with stories of tens of millions of dollars being saved on dry holes and on drilling decisions based upon the use of visualization products. Therefore, we asked oil company managers to place a value estimate on the work achieved using visualization products.

Although the results did not approach those of rumor, the actual values obtained are impressive. The table reports the largest amount reported from each major group of companies responding. Among major multinationals, a documented cost saving of at least $25 million was reported by more than one company. In the international arena, the largest success story was only slightly less - the equivalent of $20 million.

Among domestic independents we found that the stories had been somewhat exaggerated. The largest success story we were able to document was for a $5 million estimated cost saving on a hole that would have been lost in the offshore Gulf of Mexico. When $5-25 million results are viewed against the $1-3 million price tag of a first-rate visualization and analysis system, the systems are not only affordable, but very cost-effective.

Technology future

Actual plans oil and gas companies are making for purchasing and deploying visualization technologies in the immediate and distant future are a better indicator of the value placed on these technologies than anecdotal endorsements. Among major US and international companies, we found the vast majority are planning to buy and install more systems. More than half are planning to install additional systems.

Only a very few companies reported they had no immediate plans to purchase additional visualization products. The general comment was that this was due more to budgetary constraints, than to a lack of faith in the technology itself.

We sought to verify this through questions regarding how visualization was viewed as a future part of E&P. Virtually every company responding indicated they expected the use of visualization technologies to increase in the future and to supplant less advanced technologies. Nearly 75% of those responding indicated they believe 3D immersive visualization will become the norm for data analysis within five years.

This is not unreasonable considering the burgeoning amount of information being acquired and the paradigm shift toward the application of multi-disciplinary teams and advanced modeling techniques to improve reservoir analysis and to enhance reservoir performance.

The areas in which visualization was most frequently cited as being an advantage were in bringing together multiple types of information, in creating and managing reservoir models, and in supporting production and development of fields.

As the industry continues to advance, it is probable that the cost of visualization products will decrease as their performance increases. This has certainly been the case with all other forms of computer products and software. In an industry where economy and accountability have become the primary motivating factors in many decisions, immersive visualization technologies offer the opportunity to achieve substantially improved results without a substantial increase in cost.

The experience of the companies included in this survey indicate that even with today's economics, visualization is already paying off handsomely for those companies who are applying it effectively.

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Courtesy Finder Energy's QUARTERLY REPORT, 31 January 2024