Nothing embodies the raw power of an offshore oil rig like its “drawworks” hoist. The size of a U-Haul truck, this 6,000-horsepower device can lift drilling equipment weighing up to 3 million pounds out of holes lying in 10,000-foot-deep water. Its six electrical motors can reliably operate for five years straight.
That is except for when they don’t. “Over that period of time, the motors on roughly two or three rigs out of a fleet of 20 will fail prematurely with little warning, and it’s usually when you need the drawworks most,” notes Bernie Wolford, senior vice president of operations at Noble Drilling. In that rare instance of failure, the protocol is surprisingly primitive: Crew members troubleshoot locally, phone onshore experts to discuss findings, follow directions for further troubleshooting, and call back for additional instructions. It’s a routine reminiscent of fixing your mother’s laptop in Florida from your landline in your New Jersey living room.
Such rigmarole will soon become a thing of the past for Noble. The London-based offshore drilling company recently launched the world’s first digital drilling vessel, the Noble Globetrotter I. This “digital rig” uses data to create virtual versions of some of the key equipment on board. If the drawworks on this newly digitalized rig begins to fail prematurely, for example, information based on a digital twin of that asset will notify a team of experts onshore. Viewing all pertinent data on a dashboard, the onshore team can collaborate with the rig’s crew to plan repairs before a failure.
The technology making all this happen is called edge processing. This new addition to the Industrial Internet teaches machines to think for themselves. Equipment that operates on the “edge” possesses a mini data center that collects and analyzes data and then distributes vital information to the crew and experts onshore. Edge computing is already at work inside self-driving cars, smart elevators, power plants and other machines that need immediate and secure feedback and cannot wait for some remote cloud computer to chime in 30 seconds later. Noble is betting on edge computing to usher in a new age of more efficient, cost-effective offshore drilling.
This bold new era begins with taking better care of critical equipment. Noble currently maintains its drawworks by adhering to the manufacturer’s recommended inspection schedule that, according to Wolford, “don’t tell you a lot about the internal condition of the motors.”
But it turns out those motors and the engines powering the ship itself have plenty to share. Comparing data from the hoist’s actual functions with what’s known as a “digital twin,” a virtual model of the device that lives inside the edge processor and can shed light on tiny performance discrepancies human operators may easily miss. Perhaps one engine’s lube oil pressure is gradually trending higher — a problem Noble can easily remedy by changing a filter. As the digital twin receives more data from the edge, it will become increasingly familiar with how equipment behaves, and better able to foresee malfunctions before they occur.
By predicting potential failures as far as two months in advance, Noble could avert breakdowns at sea almost entirely, Wolford says. That would spare the company the expense of replacing equipment, as well as the lost revenues associated with the repair time — a time suck that costs Noble $80,000 to $465,000 daily.
All this efficiency is good news for Noble’s customers, oil companies that spend between $300,000 and $800,000 per day to drill offshore. As Wolford points out: “[Digitalization] bodes well for us in terms of convincing our clients we are the best value for the money.”
Performance data also can motivate human beings to pick up the pace. For instance, one of the most important measurements of productivity on a rig is called the tripping rate. It measures the speed at which drillers put oil pipe into the well and pull it out again and typically accounts for 17 to 22 percent of total well time. Now that the rigs are digitalized, site managers can keep tabs on the tripping rate and other key performance data on iPhone-like handhelds.
That’s because the system, called Digital Rig, runs on Predix, GE’s app development platform for the Industrial Internet. It can pluck out the information pertinent to any given task or employee, then deliver that data in customized packets of information that appear on tidy dashboards on a computer screen or handheld device. This capability means that Noble does not need to transmit unnecessary data from the edge back to shore, via satellite — a good thing considering that service 120 miles at sea is costly.
The Noble Globetrotter I’s digital debut only marks the beginning for Noble’s drilling transformation. The company plans to digitalize a total of four rigs by the end of February and ultimately expand that to the remainder of its modern fleet. While Wolford acknowledges that Noble has yet to translate data into cost savings, he expects operating expenses to drop by May of this year, particularly in maintenance. By 2019, when Digital Rig is running in full force with its kinks worked out, Wolford predicts as much as a 20 percent reduction in operating expenditures associated with targeted equipment.
Ultimately, Noble wants its “smart” rigs to be able to move men farther from the machinery, allowing crew members to operate key aspects of the mighty rigs from the safety of an operational hub rather than out at sea. However, for now, those machines will behave like model students, buckling down and learning everything their Edge processors can teach them.