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Emerging Oilfield Technologies

The New No-Collar Workforce: Way of Working Evolves With Technology in the Oil Patch

The world of work is changing rapidly. With every passing year, more workers are doing their jobs remotely, more businesses are making use of automation, and more people are becoming fearful that artificial intelligence (AI) will render their jobs obsolete. Moreover, these changes and fears are not limited to the tech industry—they are affecting the oil patch as well.

The headlines around these topics are admittedly alarmist with threats of robots taking our jobs and alluring claims about how much businesses can save on labor costs when they replace human workers. They conjure a sinister image of a post-apocalyptic future in which machines run the world.

But do these workforce changes truly represent a death knell for oil and gas field careers, or could they be just what we need?

As it turns out, businesses are not really out to replace workers with machines. Adding automation into the mix is simply meant to relieve workers of the burden of repetitive tasks and allow them to spend their time on more important work, and to let this happen, all we need to do is become more tech fluent. Let’s talk more about that.

Work Does Not Mean What It Used To

Automation and other digital solutions are unshackling workers from the traditional office setting, allowing them to do some or all of their work remotely. In fact, nearly two-thirds of companies currently have full-time employees who work outside the office, and many—in anticipation of wider adoption—have gone ahead and woven remote work right into the fabric of their businesses by creating remote work policies.

Even companies without full-time remote employees are getting in on the remote work trend. The “gig economy,” or a market characterized by a rising number of people choosing to freelance or work as independent contractors, gives employers the flexibility to choose what kinds of employees to hire.

Got a short-term project? Hire freelancers. It would be too expensive and time-consuming to hire and onboard full- or part-time employees.

Running out of space in the office but it’s not the time to relocate? No problem. Hire remote team members who work from home, across the country, or even abroad.

Employers can be confident in their decisions to include freelancers on their rosters because the gig economy is not just some passing fad. Right now, freelancers make up 35% of the US workforce, and that number is expected to reach 40% by 2020. Freelancing is here to stay.

When you are in the oil and gas sector, all this gig economy growth and the rise in freelancing does not surprise you much, right? You already know all about working with contractors and freelancers, there is even a free website known as the PumperMesh, which introduces oil and gas operators to vetted contract pumpers in the counties in which they operate.

In oil and gas, field work can often be cyclical or project-based, and hiring contractors makes more sense logistically and financially. And from the perspective of contractors, the pay is very appealing.

Freelance work is an all-around win, and it is easy to see why employers and workers continue to turn toward it.

The Shift From Human to Artificial Intelligence

So, the rise of freelancing is not that crazy, but AI on the other hand? That is a little crazy.

AI is the use of machines to perform a task that requires some degree of human intelligence to complete. What exactly do we mean by intelligence? Think things like planning, learning, reasoning, problem-solving, perception, and sometimes social intelligence and creativity. The abilities that make us human.

You probably already experience AI in your daily life. Amazon’s Alexa uses AI to understand what you say to it. Facebook uses AI to recognize faces. Your credit card company uses AI to spot fraudulent activity.

But those are just some of the simpler uses of AI. Things really get cookin’ when you feed a machine some tasty data sets and let it learn from them. That is what we call machine learning (ML), and it is essentially a specific application of AI.

ML is used to help autonomous vehicles learn to drive, allows for automated moderation of social media content on platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and helps predict and prevent cyberattacks.

See? That is not so crazy. And just like freelancing, AI and ML are not going anywhere.

International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts big growth in AI and ML over the next few years. IDC forecasts spending on AI systems will reach $97.9 billion in 2023, more than 2½  times the $37.5 billion that will be spent in 2019.

Changing Oil and Gas Operations

As you can see, tech moves fast. But the oil and gas industry is slower to change. In fact, according to the American Oil and Gas Historical Society, modern rotary rigs—although significantly improved for efficiency and safety—still closely resemble the ones used over a century ago.

Happily, though rigs may not have changed much over the years, the tools field operators use have. Instead of paper lists and spreadsheets, companies are implementing apps that allow operators to send information from the wellsite to the back office instantly.

We are also seeing a rise in automated drilling as the idea of the digital oilfield becomes commonplace. The use of remotely steerable downhole and integrate-while-drilling tools produce lots of useful data that can streamline decision-making—for example, about whether to drill an adjacent well.

All these free-flowing real-time data make it much easier to budget and forecast, and it is the key to improving worker productivity and safety. Instead of monitoring equipment that can be run remotely or with automation, operators are freed up to use their expertise for more important work, and when data is automatically synced to the back office, there is no longer a need for administrative personnel to visit the field.

So, where is oil patch technology going next?

Omar Saleh, Microsoft’s oil and gas director for the Middle East and Africa predicts that the technology that will have the greatest impact on the industry in coming years is, you guessed it, AI.

Why? For one, AI in the oil patch does seem like the ideal application for the abundance of data collected through field apps and automated workflows.

AI also provides new possibilities for exploration—Exxon Mobil has partnered with Massachusetts Institute of Technology to explore the oceans using AI software.

One global oilfield service company has piloted the use of robots to pick, pack, and ship product on the floor of their manufacturing facility, proving that AI is an ideal way to streamline operations throughout an entire company, not just in the field.

The Operator Evolution

But it is not just tech that is changing on the patch. The people are also changing.

People who work for small oil and gas operations have long been a part of the trending gig economy, working in the field on contract. But technology has made it possible to take oil patch freelancing a step further—now there’s Virtual Operating.

A virtual operator does the job of running an oil and gas company remotely.

Using technology to work remotely minimizes overhead. There is no need to rent or own an office space or keep many administrative staff on the payroll. And for those who would rather not be out in the field, virtual operating is perfect—it could mean visiting a lease as seldom as every 4 to 6 weeks.

So, for someone who wants to get into virtual operating, what is the first step? Getting tech-fluent.

Innovation on the Oil Patch

Tech fluency means getting comfortable with technology in order to let it help you. AI, ML, and automation are not here to take jobs from us. They are here to help us create digital oilfields, where machines handle the boring stuff so oil and gas experts can focus on what they do best.

So, what could a digital oilfield look like? Booz & Company paints an excellent picture of one in their report Unleashing Productivity: The Digital Oil Field Advantage.

For example, hundreds of oil and gas operators are reporting much success collecting their production data, run tickets, well tests, and downtime through the simple oil and gas production software known as the GreaseBook. Basically, pumpers download an app to smartphone through which operators can maintain a centralized place from which their team can store and reference their production data from no matter where they are.

Digital conferencing complements this real-time data sharing, allowing on- and off-site team members to easily confer and make rapid collaborative decisions.

Remotely steerable downhole tools and sensors collect real-time drilling data like RPM, circulation solids, and downhole pressures, and continuously monitor conditions.

According to Booz & Company, digital oilfields will allow us to “operate with significantly fewer resources and scale the existing resources more effectively by capturing and displaying relevant conditions more quickly and to a wider collaborative environment.”

The report goes into further detail about the potential financial impact of a digital oilfield: “One oil and gas company has quantified its productivity-based gain from introducing select digital oilfield technologies at US $20 million annually.”

The Future is Not Here Yet

While the digital oilfield is still mostly conceptual, the rise of remote work and AI make it clear that it is where we are headed.

Over the next few years, expect the appeal of the gig economy to attract more people to oil and gas, causing an increase in the number of virtual operators. The option to work remotely gives technicians the opportunity to stay in the industry they love, but to live wherever they like.

As more companies get on board with automation, it will be crucial to have better data, improved efficiency, and lower overhead in order to stay ahead. Look out for more companies starting to implement smart downhole tools that constantly monitor and measure drilling data, and watch wider adoption of apps that allow operators to track data in the field, right from their smartphones.

The future is not here yet, but by welcoming automation and AI as allies, you can meet it head-on.


Greg Archbald is the founder of GreaseBook, an oil and gas production software. Archbald graduated from the Honors College at the University of Oklahoma in 2005 where he received a dual degree in energy management and finance. While attending ESADE’s global MBA program in Spain, he was introduced to some of the mobile industry’s brightest mobile app design and development specialists. By combining their knowledge with the exposure he gained from working in the oil and gas industry, he recognized how much oil and gas operating companies stand to profit from mobile apps, and created the GreaseBook app.

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