Two of Canada’s largest gas-and-oil producers recently studied the way their employees use company software. At one, SCADA turned out to be the most-used software system; at the other, it came in third – behind e-mail and ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning).
That might raise eyebrows at many other gas and oil companies. Often, SCADA is viewed simply as a way to collect basic operational data from wellheads, pipelines and other hard-to-reach locations; it’s not perceived as a strategic business tool.
Thanks to an increasing range of capabilities, SCADA systems are now being used to solve pressing issues of overall competitiveness.
“Many companies have SCADA systems that were designed to be viewed by six or seven people locked away in a control room,” says Collin Heggerud, Director of Research and Development for SCADA at ABB in Calgary. “But one company I work with has 120 concurrent users pulling down data every afternoon. When you have that kind of intensive use, you’re not just monitoring remote locations. You’re using SCADA to run the company.”
While such power users are not alone, they are at the far end of a spectrum. At the other end are small companies that still choose the costly and potentially hazardous process of collecting data manually.
“It’s difficult to acquire data in very remote locations,” says Derrill Meyer, SCADA Manager for ABB’s Oil & Gas business unit. “Everything has to be battery powered, and your bandwidth is small. This is why SCADA even exists.”
“Part of the reason some companies haven’t adopted SCADA is the perception of cost and technical difficulty,” Heggerud notes. There is a sense that a system capable of scaling as the company grows will require expertise that small companies don’t have and can’t afford. Meanwhile, systems designed specifically for small companies have a reputation of becoming inflexible or unaffordable as the users’ needs grow.
Those perceptions are no longer necessarily true, developers say. Years of customer experience have yielded SCADA systems that are cost-effective to install at even the smallest operations, and flexible enough to accommodate growth and change. Meyer points to ABB’s SCADAvantage product as an example of a full-featured system that scales for companies of all sizes.
“We’re competitive down to a system of 100 data points. We may not be the lowest cost at that level, but we can do a system in that range for under $10,000,” Heggerud says of SCADAvantage. “Yet we’ve also done what we believe to be the largest distributed SCADA system in the world, with over 175 distributed servers and more than 2 million distributed points. And it’s all based on the same system.”
The most immediate benefit of SCADA to new users is acquisition of real-time data – meaning faster accounting and an ability to manage field assets as their status changes.
“You know what needs to get fixed, and you don’t have to visit sites that are working properly,” Meyer says. “Accounting practices are more efficient and up-to-date, which makes them more profitable over time.”
Meyer is quick to point out however, that companies with years of SCADA experience are also finding new ways it can feed innovation, competitiveness and growth.
Dissemination of data
Today, companies are using field data for a wider range of purposes – from real-time reservoir management to regulatory compliance to operational restructuring. Data from SCADA systems, therefore, is being used by operations, finance, engineering and even executive management. Getting the right information to the right people can be a struggle.
“With a range of personnel using it within a company, different people need different data,” Meyer says.
While older SCADA systems may not be equipped for such challenges, newer systems make it possible without requiring technical system design and programming knowledge. SCADAvantage’s HMI (Human Machine Interface) is user-customizable, for example – allowing each user to draw only the information he or she needs.
Heggerud describes how one large company’s SCADA system required several hours of configuration each time a new well was added to the database. “They were drilling 3,000 to 4,000 wells a year. It was a large point of pain for them,” he says.
Today, new wells are plugged into the database through a template that requires less than a minute of time.
Further, SCADA systems now come bundled with an increasing array of specialized functions that once required costly integration with standalone systems. As examples, SCADAvantage includes gas measurement with the ability to define parameters remotely; and integration with SAM controllers on rod pump wells.
SCADAvantage also maintains an ongoing history of data, which leading companies of all sizes use to evaluate and manage productivity over time. In many fee-based datacollection systems designed for small companies (users pay a monthly fee for each well monitored), the data is discarded at the end of each cycle.
“The bottom line,” Meyer says, “is companies are finding more and more ways to use data to compete more effectively. As a result, SCADA systems have had to become more powerful and flexible.”
Operational flexibility and scalability
As companies innovate, they also need supporting systems that are flexible enough to manage fast and near constant change.
“When a customer decides to invest in SCADA technology, they may only have 30 to 50 wells, so they buy a SCADA system that serves their needs today,” says Heggerud. “Then they grow and may find their system is difficult to upgrade, or expensive to incorporate a higher well count.”
Most important, Heggerud says, is that companies need the ability to deploy additional applications as operations become more sophisticated. This ranges from such straightforward features as valve and pressure control to more advanced capabilities like disaster recovery.
In fact, driven by a combination of safety, security and environmental concerns, some SCADAvantage clients are – for the first time – implementing offsite disaster recovery to augment existing on-site backup systems. The off-site solution works via low-speed WAN; in the case of a SCADA failure, the remote solution can be running within a few seconds, notes Adrian Moore, Manager For Testing And Quality with ABB’s SCADAvantage.
In another development, a distributed server network helps companies to manage SCADA on a regional basis as they grow.
“The idea behind this is that you want to run operations close to where the wells are, so if a server goes down in Alberta, for example, you aren’t affected in Saskatchewan,” Heggerud says. “But there will be times when you also need to get some information from multiple servers in your system. It’s possible now to have a SCADA network that gives you both: local control of local servers, and a companywide reporting capability.”
Technology isn’t the only aspect of a SCADA system that determines whether it is flexible and scalable. Moore is quick to point out that the licensing scheme is also important.
In a typical arrangement, each regional server is licensed to manage a certain number of data tags. As a region grows, that server’s license needs to be extended at additional cost. But with “central licensing,” Moore notes, SCADAvantage makes it easier for users to change and grow.
Central licensing assigns the total number of licensed data tags to a pool, which can be distributed across all servers in any proportion. As one region grows, it can borrow tags from other regions that have excess capacity.
“Based on customer feedback, this is what companies need in order to maximize their use of SCADA. They need to be flexible, and they need confidence that the best decision they make today isn’t going to hold them back at some point in the future,” Meyer says.
Lifecycle management/cost management
The current generation of SCADA in many companies is nearing the end of its useful life. Most were installed in preparation for Y2K, with an expected lifecycle of seven to 10 years. Replacement has been delayed by global economic uncertainty.
While support of these older systems has been extended, many will be replaced in the coming years – with companies looking for ways to extract more value from their field data.
“Big players in the industry are taking time to analyze their use of SCADA. They’re learning that it has become one of the most important software tools in the entire company,” Heggerud says. “Now they’re selecting SCADA systems the way they select other important software. They’re interested in a long-term approach to the SCADA lifecycle.”
In the oil and gas industry, key elements in such a purchase include:
- A history of the developer supporting the software platform;
- Reduced need for custom engineering, through bundling of ancillary products and capabilities, and improved integration with other enterprise systems;
- An ability to manage the system internally without adding a lot of specialized technical knowledge;
- A pricing scheme that favors flexibility and growth.
“Companies that aren’t using SCADA will benefit when they start,” Meyer says. “Companies that are already using it have an opportunity to become much faster, more innovative and more competitive.”
For more information please visit www.abb.com