Putting Technology to the Test

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In a mature basin like the UKCS, asset integrity is a key factor in Maximising Economic Recovery. Wireline turns the spotlight on two areas of focus and outlines how industry trials are showcasing the benefits of embracing technology…

They might not be regarded as the most glamorous technical subjects, but process vessel inspection (VI) and corrosion under insulation (CUI) are receiving new levels of industry interest. They are the prime areas of focus for the Asset Integrity Solution Centre (AISC), one of five hubs of specialist activity within the Aberdeen-based Oil & Gas Technology Centre (OGTC).

The AISC hosts and manages a series of initiatives designed to promote the adoption of new or existing technologies that realise cost and safety gains in asset integrity management.

“Our work is very much industry-led,” says manager Rebecca Allison. “Our prime role is to help bring new solutions through that meet current and future needs. There would be no point in investing in projects that are going to just sit on the shelf – they have to make a difference.”

The centre features a network of experienced industry people, many of them seconded from large contractors and operators. “That is key as we help developers bring technology into the market,” explains Rebecca. “With both technical knowledge and an understanding of the challenges operators face, we can offer developers an insight based on our own experience.”

This was an opportunity not only to test whether the technology would work, but to learn the nuances of the individual technologies and how our work practices and processes might need to be adapted

Technology testbed

The solution centre’s central themes of VI and CUI are derived from a study commissioned by Oil & Gas UK on behalf of the industry’s Technology Leadership Board (TLB) – and the inherent link with industry is evident in its everyday work. It is specifically exemplified in a successful programme of trials focused on the use of non-intrusive techniques for inspecting process vessels offshore.

Conducted with Total E&P UK (Total), and hosted on the Elgin Franklin platform, the trial results have led to a reshaping of the operator’s maintenance strategy and have already realised efficiencies.

“When we started looking at non-intrusive inspection (NII), we noticed a variable level of uptake in the industry,” says Billy Mackay, technical specialist at the AISC and a secondee from Total. “The technology is established , but hasn’t been widely adopted. We saw the trials as part of an effort to push the NII agenda.”

VI conventionally involves personnel entering the vessel and therefore poses safety risks. It also contributes to production downtime, as it typically forms part of a planned shutdown programme.

The 2017 trials saw three technology providers – Eddyfi, MISTRAS and Sonomatic – deploy their individual NII solutions on two selected process pressure vessels while the vessels remained online. Separately, intrusive inspections were completed during a planned shutdown. Both forms of inspection produced essentially the same results – neither detected significant defects that posed a risk to vessel integrity.

“We were among the champions of asset integrity within the TLB, so when the OGTC was set up we were one of the first to get involved in that area of work,” says Dave MacKinnon, Total’s head of technological innovation. “We wanted to help it achieve some early success and the trials were a good fit – we had the opportunity in terms of the shutdown inspections and we had the bed space to accommodate the trials.”

All three trials involved the use of varying forms of ultrasonic systems. In principle, different technologies are applied to detect different kinds of damage mechanisms – internal corrosion being among the most common mechanism on the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). Dave adds: “This was an opportunity not only to test whether the technology would work, but to learn the nuances of the individual technologies and how our work practices and processes might need to be adapted.”

The partnership approach saw the AISC procure the services of the technology providers and prepare the scope of work. Crucially, this was not just about the trials, but about the methodology of delivering NII and applying the terms of industry recommended practice – DNV-RP-G103 – which provides detailed technical guidance on the entire process.

“The trials worked well – there was a good relationship and a light-touch approach rather than lots of contractual paperwork,” states Dave. “For us it was quite symbiotic and has raised the profile of a subject that many people might not know much about or find particularly glamorous, but it is absolutely central to safe and efficient operations. It is the foundation of keeping mature assets running day to day.”

By eliminating vessels from shutdowns on a rolling basis, we are reducing costs in the long term and therefore extending field life

Passing the baton

Following the 2017 trials, the baton was handed to Total’s maintenance and inspection strategy optimisation project.

“We knew we wanted to use this technology and we could see it made sense, but the questions were: how does it become an everyday part of our operations, what processes do we need to change and how do we evaluate and work with this technology going forward?,” explains Dave.

It has become part of the remit of maintenance and inspection review project manager James Hayes, who is leading a programme to assess where operators can identify improvements in these disciplines. “This is one of the arms of the work – to be smarter in what we do, using technology to get as much value out of our maintenance and inspection work,” says James.

NII technology has been deployed in earnest on Total assets in the northern North Sea and west of Shetland this year. Some of the results already available demonstrate its tangible value.

Around eight vessels on Total’s Alwyn and Dunbar platforms have undergone NII and, with no anomalies found, these have now been removed from the planned summer shutdowns, generating an estimated £500,000 in savings – a combination of operational expenditure savings and cost avoidance. More widely, an industry survey by the OGTC and ABB (see box out below) found that NII technology had the potential to deliver increased production and lower maintenance costs worth up to £242 million annually on the UKCS.

“On top of that, of course, there is the inherent safety benefit,” adds James. “NII is now one of the elements of our risk-based inspection approach.

As part of the project, Total intends to fully implement NII into its portfolio. “We’ll review all our vessels, exchanges, systems – anything that requires internal inspection – to see if they are compatible with NII. Our goal is to take every vessel on every site to the end of its working life with the support of a NII road map,” says James.

Supply chain companies are willing to invest time and resources because they can see the opportunity to prove their technology and the potential commercial benefits that follow

Should Total uncover any technical barriers that prevent its deployment in specific situations, they could call upon the expertise in Dave’s team and the AISC to see how the technology could be adapted or advanced to overcome them.

“The no’s are just as important as the yes’s in that context. The yes’s are numbers on the board – they’re saving money and making us a safer operator,” asserts James. “The no’s are the interesting bit; how do we resolve those and take things up a level?”

He adds: “By eliminating vessels from shutdowns on a rolling basis, we are reducing costs in the long term and therefore extending field life.”

Reviewing data from non-intrusive inspection pilot studies on Total’s Elgin-Franklin platform.

Benefits and beyond

Meanwhile, at the solution centre – and on the back of the ABB survey work – Billy and his colleagues have just completed work with a group of operators, assessing their inspection regime and pinpointing how NII could be best applied. A report is being finalised.

The next phase could see the solution centre engage with operators using NII to understand how they adopted the techniques and how they navigated behavioural or commercial barriers to the benefit of the wider industry.

AISC analysis suggests the average cost of an intrusive vessel inspection is £240,000 in total – compared with around £44,000 with NII – and that doesn’t include the production premium.

“NII ticks so many boxes,” adds Billy. “Beyond the cost benefits, you’re supporting better production levels. You’re not committing people to confined spaces and you’re avoiding isolation, purging and leak-testing work – all hazardous activities.”

The AISC focus on VI extends into other areas, including a ‘call for ideas’ last year on robotic inspection of process vessels – three projects are now being advanced. A similar exercise in relation to CUI is also moving forward, with a ‘call for ideas’ issued in March 2018.

CUI has also been the focus of a separate, but interlinked, collaboration between Total and AISC. A piece of 36” pipe spool has been taken ashore and around seven technology developers have been given the opportunity to trial their corrosion detection technology on it. Their findings will be compared with those from a visual inspection – once the costly process of insulation removal and restoration is complete – to assess their effectiveness.

“It follows a similar model to the Elgin Franklin NII work and underlines the willingness within the industry to participate in these projects,” adds Billy. “Supply chain companies are willing to invest time and resources because they can see the opportunity to prove their technology and the potential commercial benefits that follow.”

The collaboration between the AISC and Total on the trails has been formally recognised by industry, when it won the MER UK Award in the 2017 Oil & Gas UK Awards.

Rebecca believes the AISC has achieved a great deal since it formally opened for business in February 2017. “It’s fun, but it’s hard work,” she says. “The real pleasure comes from working with companies that have come to us with an idea, then supporting them to take it forward.

“We’ve opened up this new opportunity for field trials and they are so important; they provide case study material and validation that the technology works and overcomes challenges. Of course, we can’t do that without the support of operators, so being able to facilitate and broker this key process – supported by the industry experience within our own team – is very rewarding.”

“The real pleasure comes from working with companies that have come to us with an idea, then supporting them to take it forward.”

Fact-finding mission

The Oil & Gas Technology Centre and ABB carried out an industry survey to assess if and how operators were using non-intrusive inspection (NII) techniques and the potential benefits it could bring to industry. The findings show:

  • The use of NII on the UKCS is limited, with some operators currently making no use of the available technology.
  • Adopting NII could enable increased production and lower maintenance costs worth around £242 million per year to the UKCS.
  • Up to 80 per cent of vessels could be examined non-intrusively, without requiring a shutdown.
  • Improved safety with up to 80 per cent fewer confined space entries required
  • A 33 per cent reduction in turnaround durations have been achieved.
  • Overall cost savings of up to 80 per cent compared to inspections that involve entry into a vessel.

The survey also reported that the main barriers to adopting NII are the perceived lack of viable non-destructive evaluation techniques; concerns about regulatory compliance; and transparency on total cost of inspection. Therefore, the OGTC and ABB are now looking at ways to help industry overcome these barriers to gain the full benefits of deploying NII technology across the UKCS.

Download the full OGTC report here.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Wireline.

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