Low-manned brownfield strategy can yield reduced opex, improved safety

March 31, 2021
Pillars of a de-manning roadmap are common across production facilities.

Today, virtually all offshore operators and engineering companies are exploring design considerations for normally unmanned new-build production facilities. Still, there’s skepticism about ambitions to de-man brownfields. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that with greenfields, decisions can be made early in the project design phase to minimize manpower requirements (e.g., selection of high reliability and digitally-enabled equipment, eliminating the need for heavy lifts, etc.). It’s also easier for operators to realize financial returns from new builds, as the facility will likely be in operation for 25-30 years.

However, with a strategic approach built around digitalization and a particular focus on rotating equipment, electrical, and automation systems, de-manning can deliver a return on investment (ROI), even on aging fields.

Defining low-manned outcomes

Siemens Energy has performed extensive work looking at how existing technologies can be applied to advance new concepts for low-manned brownfields. Through numerous Voice of the Customer (VoC) sessions with major operators in both the US and the North Sea, we have identified outcomes of broad interest to the industry when it comes to de-manning existing assets:

  •  Reduce the frequency of planned maintenance campaigns to a minimum of every six months, with aspirations to eventually extend to 12 months. The primary factors are mean time between inspections and overhauls of equipment, and the reliability and forecast horizon of predictive analytics.
  •  Reduce the number of full-time personnel required on board. Generally speaking, any reduction in offshore manning with a positive ROI is a “good” investment.  However, the difficulty of changing work processes and culture on brownfields facilities means that operators are reluctant to embark on a de-manning initiative unless they can reduce full-time offshore resources on a production platform by ~50% and on an FPSO by ~30%.
  •  Achieve the first two outcomes without negatively impacting the current uptime of the installation. In discussions with operators, the consensus was that de-manning would only be of interest if it didn’t occur at the expense of availability.

The basis for a de-manning strategy

The extent to which de-manning can be achieved on brownfields facilities depends on the asset's initial state. The process and timeline will look different for every operator; however, there are common pillars that form the basis for a tailored approach. These common pillars are described below.

    Remote process control. For most brownfields, this can be achieved by extending the human-machine interface of the control system to a remote control center (RCC), a relatively minor modification. Traditionally, this requires a fiber-optic network to the RCC, but 5G and increased access to satellite communications open up more options. With microwave as back-up, satellite is already used successfully for the remote control of some power plants, albeit onshore.

Changes to the information management system may also be required to ensure data is of sufficient quantity, accuracy, and time resolution for remote monitoring and predictive analytics.    

    Automation of routine operations tasks. To minimize human error, the control system should execute operational sequences with minimum operator intervention. On brownfield facilities, installed manual valves, resets, etc., may limit the extent to which this is possible. Still, there is nevertheless an opportunity to automate sequences in between such manual actions. It is standard practice for shutdown sequences to automatically take the facility to a safe state when pre-defined thresholds are reached.  Automated start-up sequences and other operational transitions are equally feasible.

    Automation of routine maintenance tasks. Customers almost always cite power generation packages as top consumers of maintenance man-hours. However, gas turbine packages, for example, may achieve two months between manual inspections with limited additional instrumentation, control system modifications, and simple visual analytics. HEPA air filters, online water wash, and oil quality analysis can extend this to six months. A full year may be feasible by applying statistical analysis of site maintenance records and OEM fleet records to replace aging components proactively.

    Condition-based maintenance campaigns. The primary enabler for condition-based maintenance campaigns is a trusted analytics platform to predict failures pro-actively and allow for ‘dynamic lifing’ of equipment. This also has the consequential value of reducing unplanned downtime. Reducing unplanned downtime facilitates a low-manning concept by minimizing the requirement for full-time maintenance personnel.

    Fewer expert mobilizations. By enabling workers on the facility to remotely collaborate with an offsite specialist for troubleshooting, expert mobilizations can be reduced significantly. This capability (known as “Connected Worker”) is critical for filling any knowledge/expertise gaps that may arise from de-manning.

Taking the first step

For operators looking to embark on a brownfield de-manning project, the first step should be to baseline existing resources and work processes to identify opportunities, quantify the business case, and prioritize implementation. This creates the foundation from which to engage with strategic partners in developing a detailed implementation roadmap with defined KPIs and decision gates to ensure that the business case is delivered.

In parallel, it’s important to establish a roadmap for enacting change initiatives. With any digital transformation project, focusing on technology implementation is not enough; the human journey must also be considered.

De-manning of brownfields is less of a standard solution and more of a journey within the constraints of the existing facility. However, the pillars of a de-manning roadmap are common across facilities and open up the benefits of reduced OPEX and safer operations to brownfield operators.

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