Digital Technologies and Industrial Opportunity

How will digital technologies impact the Oil & Gas and other established industries?

We are now almost 20 years into the new millennium and the predicted advance of “digital” technologies continues at an incredible pace. We are seeing ever closer integration and more technology crossover between the physical world and the digital world, a much tighter and more integrated link between software and hardware. By 2020 the expectation is that something like 20 billion devices will be connected to the internet. These devices will of course include familiar devices like computers and cell phones, but it will also include a wide range of less familiar devices such as machine tools, industrial robots, medical devices, or domestic appliances. This is the widely heralded emergence of the “Internet of Things.”. This single shift will disrupt not only our thinking but also our behaviours as broadly in our business lives as it will in our social or family lives. Disruption in happening and it is happening fast.

There are many examples of businesses and even whole industries that have been disrupted or fundamentally changed by digital development, Kodak and Blockbuster are great examples. Kodak played and important role in the development of digital photography yet failed to recognise the value of the technology or the risk it presented to their more familiar and existing business. Kodak at one time was one of the most premier brands in America yet filed for bankruptcy in 2012. The Blockbuster video rental business model was completely disrupted by Netflix. The Netflix video steaming model leveraged technology developments and the internet to offer a lower cost, more convenient and successful model to their customers.

It is important to recognise that this disruptive influence is not limited to familiar “Tech” industries but the change will equally apply to more traditional “heavy” industries including industries like Oil & Gas or the Renewable Energy Industry. These evolving and emerging technologies have a huge potential to deliver value, reducing cost and risk, whilst improving both productivity and efficiency.

The fundamentals that enable the digital opportunity can be described in three key areas: Firstly, we are seeing an increase in the availability and a reduction in cost of increasingly powerful computing resources. Whether this is in the form of power efficient processors in a range of handheld devices or an increase in the availability of cloud based resources that can be utilised at relatively low cost pretty much from anywhere in the world. It is a fact that a current smartphone today has a computational capability comparable with the whole of NASA in 1969.

Secondly, the capability of sensors is increasing massively whilst their cost is decreasing. Whether it be cameras, microphones or accelerometers such sensors can be embedded at manufacture or retro fitted to existing products. They will provide real time insights on the condition and performance of almost any asset. This hardware capability when coupled with advanced software and techniques such as machine learning and AI can provide feedback and insight into performance that changes operations fundamentally.

The third area of change relates to the democratisation of manufacture and developing closer links between design analysis and fabrication. Subtractive methods of manufacture will be increasingly supported by evolving additive manufacturing processes. We are already seeing additive systems being applied to the manufacturer of large structures using robotic welding and other techniques. Additive allows incredibly efficient design, only placing material where it is required based on aesthetic or physical need. As an example, in the Netherlands, a company called MX3D are designing and additively manufacturing a footbridge in steel using industrial multi axis robots. This very visible example of additive manufacturing will be installed in Amsterdam, crossing one of the city's many canals. The MX3D example demonstrates the value and application of additive manufacturing techniques “outside of the box”, beyond the constraints of the relatively small 3D printers with which we are all familiar. 

Computing power coupled with ubiquitous sensors and additive manufacturing will lead to a very fast, efficient, and intelligent product design process. Where future or next generation products benefit from measured data and physical responses of their predecessors at an ever increasing and potentially automated pace. In future will we design less and allow our products to develop more? It is very clear that “digital” and other emerging technologies offer a significant and different value proposition.

This shift, is important and represents a great opportunity for research and engagement to academic institutions like Strathclyde, it will be a fertile area for development and innovation, a facility such as the AFRC is a fantastic resource that can provide support and leadership as the digital DNA in our traditional industries evolve.

A successful technology must prove its value and to prove value you first must deploy the technology. It is fair to say that some industries adopt new technologies faster than others. The Oil and Gas Industry for good reason has in the past and in some areas proven to be somewhat conservative. In the UKCS we see some great opportunities for new technology to contribute to maximising economic recovery (MER) from the UKCS. These opportunities must be viewed within an important temporal context, much of the infrastructure on the UKCS is aging and we have a limited window of opportunity to deploy new technologies whilst we still have access to some of that infrastructure. It is therefore important that we consider if the pace at which we have deployed and adopted technology in the past is appropriate for the future. Do we need to move faster? Or, should we move faster? Could new “digital” technology itself help in this regard?

A digital twin represents a digital model of physical assets, processes or systems that can be used for monitoring, diagnostics and prognostics. The digital twin is able to combine multiple data sources for example historical, measured or predicted inputs to model multiple outcomes and derived value. Digital twins enable multiple models, often many hundred or even thousands of models with slightly variant inputs can be run concurrently to explore the predicted outcomes and to define the inputs that best align with desired goals. Such digital modelling combined with more sensors and monitoring may provide improved levels of confidence to support the deployment of new technologies that can deployed to contribute to MER. Within my company Baker Hughes, a GE Company we have learned a great deal on the utilisation of such models and how they deliver added value where we bring together the data, digital twins and the deep domain knowledge on the equipment. Such models have been well proven in our Aviation, Transportation and Power generation businesses. These techniques are effective and we see only growth in such applications.

It is extremely important that we ensure our businesses and industry have the intellectual capital to compete in these fields, the role of academic institutions in support of industry is critical and a great source of commercial and technical differentiation. Such support must however be able to keep pace with the rate of change. At Strathclyde, the Technical Innovation Centre represents a significant resource in aligning the needs of industrial enterprise and academia, just the sort of vehicle that can contribute at scale to commercial success. Within Baker Hughes we talk often of “Minds & Machines” this is the opportunity presented by the digital evolution, smart tools and smart people across a number of industries. It is a great opportunity, but we must be ready for it, ready to recognise it, but also ready to respond fast enough.

Paul W. White
Chief Engineer – Subsea Production Systems & ServicesBaker Hughes, a GE Company