October 2021 /// Vol 242 No. 10)
Digital oilfield partnerships accelerate delivery of completions innovation
Harnessing the digital oil field and building fit-for-purpose business analytics allows E&Ps and service companies to navigate market forces, manage the energy transition, automate processes, contain costs, reduce carbon footprint, and deliver better wells in less time.
With data as the “new oil,” knowing how to extract and produce value in the digital oil field can be the difference that makes or breaks an oilfield industry player. In the same vein as engineering and other disciplines that shape the bottom line, digital skillsets and innovation are becoming increasingly vital to a company’s ability to thrive amidst shifting economics and the energy transition.
Historically—and in many cases, even today—operators, service companies, and technology providers have been known to pull in separate directions. This practice, with each discipline attempting to solve digital oilfield challenges alone, creates data silos and prevents innovations from gaining widespread adoption in a timely manner. Future innovation must be built around partnership, where everyone pulls in the same direction.
Unlike drilling, where the industry universally recognizes long-established processes and data standards, completions technology continues to grow exponentially, and this explosive growth has resulted in a lack of standardization. To keep pace with rapid change in the digital oil field, oil and gas producers, oilfield service companies, and software developers must have a strategy to continuously innovate by collaborating around a unified, openly shared view of all completions processes. This shared view will empower all involved parties to take part in creating new, fit-for-purpose digital solutions.
The rewards for digital innovators are transformative, including lower operating costs, increased well production, logistical advantages, reduced environmental impact, and the ability to achieve more with a lean team. With that said, how do we all get there?
A NEW LEVEL OF OPENNESS AND COLLABORATION
Glancing over the shoulders of a typical completions team, you’ll find a disparate array of data types and formats that engineers must work with on a daily basis. Raw wellsite information from frac fleets, wireline, and plug drillout must be manually sifted to glean insights or indications of potential problems on upcoming completions operations.
Then, there are the ever-present spreadsheets intended to fill the gaps between what software can and can’t accomplish, which leaves engineers to track offset wells and perform extensive calculations in a format that lends itself to human error, inconsistent findings, duplicated effort, and wasted time. Adding complexity are the myriad sources of unstructured data that clutter workstations and inboxes, such as PDF reports and endless emails.
Typical completions can have hundreds—or even thousands—of data channels flowing in from the frac spread, pumpdown operations, wireline logger, and other sources. Multiple contractors add multiple layers of data management complexity, which are then pushed to the operator to sort out and untangle. All too often, service companies end up competing with their customers to decide which of several mismatched data sources will serve as their “single version of truth.” The resulting cycle of data wrangling, formatting, and cleanup is quite time-consuming and inefficient.
To achieve peak business performance in the digital oil field, companies must address this overarching data dilemma. This is what NexTier set out to accomplish with the advent of its Houston-headquartered NexHub® Digital Center (Fig. 1), which began operations in 2018. With an original focus on equipment health monitoring, the NexHub team steadily developed additional capabilities. In 2020, they introduced a digital operations engineering team that can remotely respond to issues in the field, as well as a logistics control tower that digitally streamlines the procurement and delivery of wellsite materials and equipment.
The 24/7 operations support center was designed to fundamentally solve wellsite data management challenges by centering all completions activities around a common, consistent and quality-controlled aggregate dataset. The ability to provide NexTier service lines and customers with a shared view opened the doors to powerful new data and operational synergies.
By digitally integrating completions, NexTier set the foundation for real-time, remote operational support, which enriches processes with a timely, single version of the truth for data related to fracturing, fueling performance, CNG management, proppant, chemicals, wireline, pumpdown, and logistics.
VISUALIZING DATA PIPELINES WITH ANALYTICS
Having pioneered new methods of aggregating, standardizing, and maintaining quality control for the breadth and depth of completions data, NexTier sought to deliver a data-visualization platform that would be universally accessible at the customer level. To couple its best-in-class NexHub digital infrastructure with best-in-class data visualization, NexTier partnered with Corva, whose visualizations of drilling analytics had been widely adopted across the supermajors, majors and independents on hundreds of rigs worldwide. The goal was to create a similar visualization platform for the completions realm—where customers and NexTier crews alike could view the same data streams, assess and optimize the same KPIs, and benefit from the same real-time insights.
At about the same time that the NexHub Digital Center was taking form, Corva introduced its real-time completions optimization platform, which has evolved into more than 40 discrete analytics, spanning frac, wireline and drillout. These apps are delivered over the cloud and through a native mobile app for Apple and Android devices, enabling completions teams to instantly begin leveraging the technology via web browser, smartphone or tablet.
Corva’s completions optimization platform and the NexHub Digital Center intersected when the companies partnered this year, bringing NexTier’s extensive pedigree in completions operations and data management together with Corva’s rich data visualization. As a result, every NexTier fracturing customer, whether large or small, now had an unprecedented ability to access high-quality, consistent completions data, automation enhancements, increased engineering expertise, and greater development capabilities to improve completion performance.
ENABLING REAL-TIME, REMOTE FRAC MONITORING
An early opportunity to demonstrate the value of the NexTier and Corva partnership presented itself when a mutual client—a major operator in the Permian basin—enabled NexTier and Corva to capitalize on their combined digital capabilities to enable skilled decision-makers to control completion treatments from an off-site location. For this very first proof of concept in a real-world, high-profile operation, they created a customized, digitally enabled plan that equipped the client to treat multiple wellsites remotely, while improving scalability and mitigating safety risks, using fewer personnel.
With real-time access to NexTier’s data pipelines and Corva’s completions dashboard, the team was able to view myriad key performance indicators—including treatment plot, chemical and proppant usage, stage design compared to actual fracture propagation, and other crucial metrics, throughout the completions process.
The initial remote frac management was performed a mere 100 ft from the well that the team was completing, and the radius extended outward hundreds and then thousands of feet from the subject well with each successive phase of the remote completion. Ultimately, these proof-of-concept runs culminated in the management of a 106-stage completion from 56 mi away. As the test team had anticipated, using remote personnel did not lead to an increase in downtime.
In the domain of completions management, this operation exemplifies a major advancement in providing full data transparency, integrating wellsite activities, improving operational synergies, and mitigating wellsite exposure to safety risks, Fig. 2. By reducing the need to put boots on the ground in remote shale plays, many critical personnel can now perform their jobs remotely and in close digital collaboration, which enables them to monitor, control and support multiple frac jobs simultaneously. This bodes well for tech-savvy newcomers to the industry, who are keenly accustomed to an on-demand digital world.
FUTURE INNOVATION IS A TEAM SPORT
What strategic relationships like the NexTier/Corva technology partnership demonstrate is that the energy industry is transitioning to a new era, where service companies, software developers, and operators no longer strive to solve oilfield challenges in isolation. Indeed, by merging core competencies and complementary skillsets, this trifecta of innovation stakeholders can achieve more by solving shared problems together. The innovation “sweet spot” occurs where the operator’s data intersect with the digital capabilities of Corva and the NexHub Digital Center. This delivers complete data transparency for all parties and a true, single version of the truth that eliminates data wrangling and information uncertainty. This, in turn, leads to unified reporting and better-informed completion decisions.
Completion technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds, as operators and service companies chase increased pumping hours, more completed stages in a day, and the environmental benefits that come from electric- and natural gas-powered fracturing fleets. As a result, it is imperative for oil and gas operators to define a digital transformation strategy that enables them to keep pace with rapid change and innovation.
The new innovation model enables operators to integrate trusted data pipelines directly into their operations for analysis through the cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications This takes them out of the drilling and completions data-management business, eliminates the need to manage physical hardware to process their data, and reduces total cost of ownership. Service companies like NexTier benefit from seamless integration of new service lines, fast-tracking digital solutions in support of emerging technologies. And for software developers like Corva, consolidated completions data accelerate innovation and delivery of advanced analytics.
Innovation is a team sport, in which the combined development power of a digital oilfield partnership can yield remarkable outcomes, equipping all stakeholders with the ability to create their own solutions. For Corva and NexHub, remote frac management and support is only the tip of the iceberg for what’s possible through their partnership. Already, the scope is broadening to include digital solutions and customized apps for diesel displacement, offset well monitoring, and optimized completions, based on geomechanical data. Future areas of collaboration may include cementing, coiled tubing, sand logistics, delivery of compressed natural gas, and emissions reduction.
DIGITAL INNOVATORS VS. DIGITAL LAGGARDS
Surprisingly, in an industry that was born of a pioneering spirit and has advanced quality of life beyond comparison, oil and gas companies have fallen behind other sectors in making the leap to digitalization. While digital innovators are eager to reap the safety, cost, and operational efficiencies of data-driven advancement in the industry, cultural resistance to digital transformation still exists. In such a fiercely competitive landscape, it’s easy to inadvertently fall into the “digital laggard” category.
Ready or not, the intuitive, rule-of-thumb oil field of yesterday is transforming rapidly into a digital oil field. Here, the ability to harness data, visualize it, organize it, and extract value from it is paramount. Technology partnerships like Corva and NexTier offer E&Ps a viable path to attaining the digital oilfield solutions they need to succeed and grow. Amidst volatile commodity prices, evolving Wall Street sentiment, and increased focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) priorities, energy companies that want to confidently move forward need to develop new skillsets—and fast. Today, the ability to rapidly build software solutions is as central to running an oil company as its engineering, geoscience, land, and other business functions.
THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF DEVELOPMENT
Digital innovators have built their own, home-grown software for decades, but the costs and limitations of traditional software development persist, including:
- IP ownership – E&Ps trade competitive advantage for off-the-shelf digital solutions, leading many to undertake development of expensive and brittle proprietary solutions to maintain control of their intellectual property and custom oilfield software.
- Data quality – Data streams from rigs, frac fleets, wireline, and drillout must be carefully validated and calibrated for analysis, underscoring the need for dedicated resources to continuously cleanse both structured and unstructured data sources (PDF drilling and completion reports, etc.).
- Long cycle times – Typical development methods can take more than six months to create simple solutions, in which time the business context and value often shift, making development a moving target.
- Deployment and activation – Development best practices entail separate environments to develop, test/stage, and deploy a production version, requiring multiple servers, extensive time, and manual processes to move solutions to the oilfield front lines.
- Pace of innovation – Technical advancements, especially in completions, continue to accelerate, which leaves E&Ps to continuously chase innovation and incorporate new systems, sensors, and frac-fleet technology into digital solutions.
- Specialized programming skillsets – Traditional software development limits involvement of engineering, geoscience and other disciplines to provide software specifications to programmers, which delays solution delivery through endless rounds of development iteration.
THE NEXT WAVE OF COMPLETIONS INNOVATION
One of the first completions applications built on the Dev Center platform is a joint initiative between Corva and MGB Oilfield Solutions (MGB), a manufacturer of completions equipment that improves operational efficiency, safety and profitability. It partnered with Corva to create a companion app for its pumping equipment that targets fuel optimization and cost efficiency for clients.
Unnecessary idling requires more frequent refueling runs, places wear and tear on equipment, and puts the environment at risk. The app automatically optimizes idling by analyzing engine speed, fuel flow to engine, horsepower, engine hours, idle position, and gear selection in real time. MGB has also monetized its fuel-optimization application by making it available for purchase on the Corva App Store, a growing ecosystem of apps designed by Corva, its partners, and third-party developers.
Dual-fuel fracturing fleets—which are able to displace much of their diesel consumption by incorporating natural gas into the fuel mix—have been touted by many service companies as an easy victory that will automatically reduce operational costs and boost ESG performance. However, even the highest-rated Tier 4 dual-fuel units require a delicate balance of operating parameters to deliver optimal diesel displacement and emissions reduction, specific fuel mixtures, pump rates, stimulation pressures and environmental performance standards, providing cost reduction from diesel displacement, as well as lower emissions.
Leveraging Dev Center capabilities and cooperative efficiencies, NexTier and Corva are creating a first-of-its-kind NexHub app (Fig. 3) that will display diesel-displacement data to help optimize the performance of NexTier’s dual-fuel fleets. Showing real-time trends in operational performance and equipment KPIs—including fuel mixtures, percentage of diesel displaced, average engine load, and gas-line pressure—the NexHub app will provide a transparent view to help the crew ensure that each dual-fuel engine is maximizing usage of natural gas, Fig. 4. With the ability to overlay stage data and perform lookback analyses, the new app also can be integrated into Corva completions dashboards, putting diesel-displacement data and live equipment stats in context with treatment data and other apps.
Innovation between Corva and NexTier is accelerating beyond remote frac management and early Dev Center success. NexTier and Corva are currently collaborating on multiple NexHub applications, including NexWatchSM offset well monitoring, LateralScienceSM optimized completions, and its comprehensive IntelliStimSM frac optimization system. NexHub applications that are built on the Dev Center platform can also take full advantage of Corva’s extensive application programming interface (API) to access geomechanical data captured while drilling. This further enables completion teams (such as those using NexTier’s LateralScience method) to improve placement of plugs and clusters, adjust pumping schedules, and marry treatments to the rock.
The future of innovation in our industry is centered around collaboration—software developers, service companies, and E&Ps, which are all stakeholders leveraging each other’s core strengths—to create something bigger than the sum of the parts. Corva and its partners currently have more than 25 drilling and completions apps in the development pipeline, many of which will be made available via the company’s online marketplace. This includes a simultaneous operations monitoring app to analyze the status of frac-tree valve, read pressure gauges on frac trees, and determine whether frac, wireline or maintenance is being performed on the well. Additional completions apps slated for release include hazard analysis, distributed temperature sensing (DTS) and distributed acoustic sensing (DAS), and real-time chemical monitoring for frac fluids.
By harnessing the digital oil field and building fit-for-purpose business analytics, E&Ps and service companies gain the agility they need to navigate market forces, manage the energy transition, automate processes, contain operational and development costs, reduce carbon footprint, and deliver better wells in less time.