By Keith Larson, Smart Industry editor in chief
Pioneer Energy’s core value proposition has been made both practical and increasingly scalable through recent advances in digital communications, computing and automation technology. The Lakewood, Colo., manufacturer of gas processing equipment was created with the charter to innovate in the domestic energy industry, and its first systems capture and recover usable liquid fuels from oil and gas well vapors that in the past were often vented or flared. This both reduces environmental impact of oil and gas operations and creates a revenue stream that more than pays for the equipment itself.
Key to making this approach practical is the distribution of gas processing capabilities out at the producing wells, rather than at a central facility. But gas processing “at the edge” presents its own set of challenges, related Andy Young, director of operations, in his presentation at Smart Industry 2017. In particular, Pioneer Energy is responsible 24/7 for operating its units on behalf of the well operators. And with 10 mobile and unmanned semi-trailer-mounted units scattered across Colorado, North Dakota and Montana, the company relies on increasingly autonomous, local control coupled with digitally enabled remote oversight to ensure safe and reliable operation.
“It all begins with the physical asset, the physical layer—pipes, tanks and valves,” said Young of the design basis for the company’s modular separation units. And while the application of technology necessarily comes first, the digital layer can help differentiate hardware alternatives, and advance designs more quickly, Young said. Meanwhile, the digital technology at the company’s disposal is advancing rapidly. “Technology is changing under our feet,” Young said. The design challenges that must be overcome, however, are largely static. Young groups these into issues having to do with operations, adaptability, data, safety, security, client relationships and stakeholder engagement.
Seven layers of digital design
He further segments the digital design methodology the company uses to manage and control the company’s units into seven hierarchical layers. Locally, these start with 1) the physical asset itself as well as 2) field devices such as sensors and actuators followed by 3) input/out systems for mediating the potpourri of field device communication interfaces with the 4) controller layer, or local edge, which provides a home for first-line process automation logic, access control, and data buffering as well as a jumping off point to the company’s central monitoring center.
As data leaves the machine itself, the topside layers of this digital design methodology are firmly embedded in the IT information management realm, with 5) networking—often wireless transmission over cellular communications—6) data access and 7) data analytics/machine learning rounding out the model.
It’s at this highest level of data analytics and machine learning—which might take place in Pioneer Energy’s private servers or in the cloud—that things are advancing most rapidly. The company is experimenting with a range of technologies to help its units perform better and more reliably, ranging from simple analytics and regression analysis to machine learning, neural networks, and potentially to genetic algorithms, deep learning and “machines teaching machines,” Young said. “We started with pipe, now we’re talking neural networks directly connected to them.”
From a conceptual point of view, Pioneer Energy wants to be able to view and manage the operations of its far flung fleet as if they were all located in a single location. They want to dig deeper into the factors affecting machine performance, “from a machine-level view to more granular resolution of what’s happening in the field,” Young said. And as the company pushes more intelligence and autonomy into its local controllers, it hopes to be able to manage more units in more locales. “We’re looking to double our number of units in the next two years. And with digital technology, we can go to more remote locations and help in all regions of the country and the world.”