Avatar colleagues The continuing cost pressure in the oil and gas production industry is inspiring innovation. The timing is perfect, since digitalization offers unprecedented opportunities – from the virtual platform to the subsea factory and remote control operations.

platform of Wintershall Norge
delivers realtime data to the office
in Bergen via fiber optic cables.
Photos: Dominik Obertreis/Wintershall, Thor Oliversen/Wintershall, MBMultimedia.no/Wintershall

Three kilometers deep, at the bottom of the ocean, it is dark. If it wasn’t for the images taken by special cameras, you wouldn’t know that the production platforms are actually yellow. Images like these are rare, for the subsea factory, a production plant on the seabed, works autonomously and without maintenance. The installation and the well were the only parts that required special vessels, which drove the drill core thousands of meters into the seabed. The extracted oil flows onshore through induction-heated pipelines, and is refined there almost fully automatically.

All the structural components in the oil field communicate with each other automatically on whether a valve should be opened or closed. What they have to do together to achieve the optimal production volume is determined by an algorithm fed by complex supply and demand forecasts.

This is roughly what oil and gas production technology will look like in the future – at least according to a scenario created by experts at Siemens for the year 2050. Many aspects of it are already becoming reality today – not least because of the persistently low oil price. The cost pressure in the industry is increasing, and with it the need to try out new approaches. Competition will only become tougher in the coming years, particularly in Europe.

“We have to fundamentally change the oil and gas industry,” says Mario Dreier, Head of Product Operations at Germany’s largest internationally -active crude oil and natural gas producer, Wintershall. “The falling oil price and increased production costs call for greater efficiency in all areas. Modern information services are a pre-condition for this transformation.” With the help of digitalization and software, it is not only possible to optimize processes – for example, the technical maintenance of platforms or the training of staff – but also also to completely restructure them. Existing hardware can also be shaped into new structures. 

Increase efficiency

The BP Energy Outlook provides one future scenario from the economic perspective. Global demand for energy will rise by 34 percent by 2035, according to the experts. The energy mix will become more climate-friendly: coal will lose out, natural gas will gain ground, and oil will keep its place as the number one source of energy, despite increasingly difficult production conditions. That sums up their predictions. Many companies in the oil and gas production industry have long since started preparing for this future. The BP experts only dare make a vague prediction about the future of the oil price, saying only that it will “level off again” – but at exactly which level remains to be seen.

“Commercially speaking, it is not primarily about tapping into new oil deposits, but about using the investments that have already been made more effectively through raising productivity,” says Thomas Sparks, Head of Strategy, Oil & Gas at Siemens. The oil production companies would like to have less downtime. In addition, transport costs – for personnel- and materials – need to be minimized. “The most expensive -hotel rooms in the world are located on oil rigs, including the landing site,” Sparks explains. -Innovative digital technology helps to reduce these costs.

“The digital revolution is already here,” says Rich Holsman, Managing Director, Global Energy Digital and Technology at Accenture management consultants. Holsman advises leading companies in the oil and gas industry. Data takes on the central role, even in the planning stage of such a major and complex project such as the development of an oil field: all the relevant planning data available is collected and filtered using big data analytics. The planning converges on cloud platforms, where plant information management software developed by Siemens is applied. This software allows all stakeholders to have access to exactly the same constantly updated information at any time, including the complete history. Staff can join forces in “expert centers” and mull over solutions for complex problems in the virtual world. The software also helps with prognostic maintenance so that such problems do not arise in the first place. Maintenance intervals are coordinated and components that have to be replaced are ordered on time by the system.

There is already an example of digitally led maintenance in its cooperation with WINGAS. “For the gas turbine in the CHP plant at Lubmin in Germany, the permanent and intensive exchange of data ensures the optimization of servicing intervals. The resources and time required for maintenance are thus reduced to a minimum,” Sparks says. The continuous technology from the turbine to the infrastructure to automation ensures that everything -operates smoothly.

Walk-in databases

The visualization of an entire plant as a 3-D model represents another possibility for saving costs. This creates a sort of walk-in database. Just like in a video game, engineers can move through the platform with an avatar, or they can put on 3-D glasses and find themselves in a virtual world of pipes, pumps, and valves. The engineers can take a virtual tour and keep track of exactly which valve comes from which series, how long it has been in operation, and when it is next due to be serviced – without having to put a foot on the platform. 

The software is in use even before the pumps are turned on. Total E&P, for instance, used the simulator to train its staff for remote offshore locations such as the Pazflor FPSO off the coast of Angola – while the production vessel was still in the shipyard in Korea. The shortened induction phase thanks to the earlier training in the virtual model meant that Pazflor was able to begin operations more than two months earlier than planned. As long as events take place above or just below the water’s surface, staff will check that everything is okay or carry out repairs – albeit seldom. But what about deep down below on the sea bed? “Subsea is like flying to the moon,” Thomas Sparks says. “We have to master this environment so that everything runs smoothly – and without maintenance.” Every time maintenance is required, each intervention incurs immense costs because highly specialized robots have to be deployed. This solution is called the Subsea Factory, an autonomous system of oil production platforms on the seabed, connected by cables, pipes and lines, which communicate with each other via a permanent flow of data.

Use what's already there

REMOTE CONTROL: Wintershall controls more than 20 gas production platforms in the Dutch North Sea from a control center on the mainland.
Photos: Dominik Obertreis/Wintershall, Thor Oliversen/Wintershall, MBMultimedia.no/Wintershall

Wintershall is trying to replicate this solution as closely as possible for the development of the Maria field in Norway. It made sure it was keeping a handle on costs even in the planning stage by applying intelligent solutions. By using the technical infrastructure of the surrounding offshore platforms – Aasgard, Kristin and Heidrun – the company was able to concentrate on the subsea installations and and on connecting the field to the -existing -infrastructure. “This cost-saving approach is unique in Norway,” says Hugo Dijkgraaf, Wintershall Project Manager for the Maria field. It is a crucial factor with regard to the commercial viability of the project. It is difficult enough to carry out the necessary work with a water depth of 300 meters and weather conditions at the surface that only offer a small time window between April and September. “If all the planned steps can be completed by the end of the year, then we will have a good chance of getting the project up and running as scheduled,” Dijkgraaf says. The aim is to start production in 2018. But Maria will not work entirely independently once it comes on stream. The field will be monitored and controlled via remote control operations from the Norwegian mainland. People with extensive experience, both onshore and -offshore, will be contributing there.

Talk to each other

COMMUNICATION: The control center in Bergen and the team on the Brage platform communicate by video conference.
Photos: Dominik Obertreis/Wintershall, Thor Oliversen/Wintershall, MBMultimedia.no/Wintershall

One of these people is Age Jonker. As supervisor, he is in charge of the Wintershall Central Control Room (CCR) in Den Helder. Here, together with 13 colleagues, he monitors 25 installations off the Dutch coast in round-the-clock shift operations. Five of these platforms are manned. It is the job of the staff in the CCR to monitor and ensure the functioning and production quantities of the platforms.  “We don’t need 3-D animations to do that. The data we receive automatically from the platforms is sufficient,” Jonker says. Communication is everything in his job – but not the communication between machines, the communication between people. If any snags occur in the chain of communication, Jonker picks up the phone straight away and sorts it out. Sometimes he has to send a mechanic out, sometimes he has to have a discussion with the transport company about how to bridge a brief loss in pressure. “We cannot – nor would we wish to – do without the people here and their experience. They are our capital,” Jonker says.

Text: Marijke Engel

With the COMOS Walkinside Immersive Training Simulator, the operators can immerse themselves fully in their plants. The simulation of real-life scenarios and the support of several avatars reinforces the testing of team performance and communication. To make the training even more lifelike, the 3-D model can be supplemented with all the details of the existing plants.


Total produces oil from a four-field deepwater development comprising the fields Cravo, Lirio, Orquidea and Violeta (CLOV) off the coast of Angola. Production is controlled by a fully electronic floating oil and gas platform (FPSO), which works with variable speed systems. Turbines similar to the ones used in the aerospace industry generate the energy needed to supply the submarine and surface facilities.

FMC Kongsberg Subsea AS is supplying Wintershall Norge with a comprehensive subsea production system for the development of the Maria oil field. It comprises two integrated installations on the sea bed with distribution adapters and additional equipment. It also includes the dynamic and static supply pipeline, the basis for the production risers and the termination unit of the subsea supply, as well as the subsea control system.

INTERVIEW: »Experienced staff are indispensable«

Age Jonker, CCR Supervisor at Wintershall Noordzee, talks about the value of experienced staff despite automation and digitalization.

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