Inaugural Conference Pushes Industry Past the Digital Transformation

Digital transformation: It’s a phrase that seems to be on the lips of everyone in the oil and gas industry, and that was certainly true at the inaugural Energy in Data conference held in Austin. The conference, however, showed that the transformation is more than on its way. It’s here.


Detlef Hohl, chief scientist with Shell, set the tone: “I had a chat with a participant who said, ‘If I hear many more talks on the digital transformation, I may become nauseous.’” Hohl then proceeded to lay out the myriad ways Shell has pushed through the transition.

“There’s various ways of implementing digital transformation,” Hohl said. “We chose the way of putting in place a global digital center of experts.” Shell has gathered data scientists and computational scientists into a corporate technology organization. “It’s a group of a few hundred people—data scientists, computational scientists, robotics experts, but also people with commercial skills,” Hohl said.

Hohl said that Shell’s group of digital experts is responsible for three realms of the transition. The first is selection of what Hohl called foundational technologies through research and development. This takes the company beyond its own borders. “We do this a lot, much more than in the past, with external partners,” Hohl said. “We can’t do this alone. We don’t want to do it alone. We build external partnerships to great extent with large institutions, small institutions, startups, national labs, universities.”

This need for external cooperation was echoed throughout the conference. “No company in our industry is going to pull this off on its own,” said Chetan Desai, the vice president of digital technology for Schlumberger.

The selection of foundational technologies leads Shell’s group of experts to its second mandate, to “showcase the art of the possible.” “How can we take our investment dollars and make them into return dollars?” Hohl said, adding that this effort moves back within the company’s walls. “It takes a large group of skilled experts, internal capacity, internal capabilities, to do that,” he said. “You cannot just outsource this is our experience.”

Once the technologies are selected and how they will be used is determined, Shell’s experts fulfill their third mandate of facilitating best-practice sharing across the company.

Hohl said that, broadly, Shell has focused its digital efforts on four areas of the business. The first is the subsurface. “It has to be subsurface and wells,” Hohl said. “That’s our core business area. Under subsurface and wells, data integration plays a very important role.”

With the rapid expansion in the amount of subsurface data, Shell is looking to semiautonomous interpretation to make sense of it all. This explosion in subsurface data means human interpreters just cannot keep up, Hohl said. “We can use digital mechanisms—artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning—to assist the human interpreter greatly,” he said.

To further this effort, Shell has created GeoCrawler, an artificial intelligence assistant for seismic interpreters. “Seismic volumes are growing every year spectacularly,” Hohl said. “What we find is that our human interpreters look at maybe 2, 3, 4, 5% of the data that we have acquired at great expense. That’s not sustainable.” GeoCrawler, he said, is a set of tools that uses state-of-the-art deep neural networks to assist the interpreters. “These AI assistants perform better than the best interpreters” Hohl said, adding that, “with the GeoCrawler technologies, interpretation can be done in a few hours of computer time as opposed to months or weeks of human time.”

Shell’s second area of digital effort is reservoir modeling. “We have gone to a mechanism where digital or data-driven models supplement or even replace our physical models for the subsurface,” Hohl said. “Specific suitable architectures of neural networks perform as well or even better than a subsurface physics model in certain applications. And, of course, they run way faster.”

Beyond the subsurface and the reservoir, Hohl said Shell is putting energy into autonomous drilling and using digital data to assist the driller with information such as where they are in the formation and where to go.

Finally, Hohl said Shell sees great digital opportunity in asset management. “Is a very big item in our roadmap,” he said. “And there’s items underneath asset management like process safety. The new technologies allow us to do 24/7 surveillance.”

Shell and others present at the Energy in Data conference showed that the industry is committed to the transformation. Chandra Yeleshwarapu, senior director of digital transformation and business development with Landmark Software and Services, said companies had better be committed to the transition or they will have to pay the digital penalty. “‘What is digital penalty?’ you may ask. If you are not the first or the second within your industry to be digitally transformed, you will have to invest a lot more just to stay afloat or catch up.”


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