Emerging technologies are fueling digital revolution in the Oil and Gas industry – Ayinde

Ayokunle Bidemi Ayinde, a versatile drilling engineer with 15 years of professional experience who has played leading and critical roles in major oil and gas projects both locally and internationally, in this interview with INIOBONG IWOK says, the oil and gas industry is in some form of a digital revolution with solutions being developed using emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), machine learning, the internet of things (IoT) and many more. Excerpts:

The coronavirus pandemic has left in its wake a lot of disruptions in all areas of human endeavour, including the oil and gas sector; what major disruptions has your industry witnessed as a result of the pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many disruptions in our lives as humans, and the industries are not exempted. The oil and gas industry has mainly been very hard hit, and with the global spread of the virus, activities have either stopped entirely or slowed down in response to the changing realities. The most significant impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the oil and gas industry has been the price crash of crude oil within a short period, which usually triggers a chain reaction. Covid-19 caused a historic drop in demand, given the global shutdown of economic activity in many sectors in different parts of the world and the resultant decline in travel, changes in consumer behaviour, and a spike in unemployment. The combination of a price war and the economic shutdown due to Covid-19 contributed to the sudden decline in oil prices between March and May 2020. It has not recovered since then because we are not out of the woods of uncertainties surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic. The industry has since focused on business stability and strategies fora sustainable business model that can lead to long-term flexibility as the world comes out of the coronavirus crisis. There has being a sharp drop in major capital projects, with most projects either rolled back or suspended. A quick measure of this is the rig counts, which have continued to trend downwards globally. The latest Dallas Fed Energy Survey indicates that the oil and gas sector’s business activity index sank to a historical low in Q2,2020. The industry has seen rounds of employees’ layoffs across various sectors. Like most other areas during this pandemic, the industry has embraced a more remote work structure for office-based personnel and compliance with the Covid-19 protocol for physical work by maintaining social distance and wearing a face covering. A face mask is now established as a new Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the oil and gas industry.

Can we still witness any major digital innovation in the oil and gas industry in this century that could lead to improved operations efficiency in the oil and gas industry more than the industry has witnessed?

Absolutely. Let me put it simply; any activity or operation currently being performed manually can and will be transformed using digital technologies and tools to improve the industry’s safety and efficiency. Digital technologies help almost every industry rewrite its operating landscape, and the oil and gas industry can no longer remain behind. The potential benefits of digitalising are clear—increased productivity, safer operations, and cost savings. With weak oil prices and marginal operational gains, one of the most significant advantages of adopting digital technology could be the flexibility these technologies offer to withstand the plunges that the oil industry suffers. The industry is in some form of a digital revolution with solutions being developed using emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), machine learning, and the internet of things (IoT). We are witnessing an explosion of ideas and innovations in many areas of oil and gas operations. The revolution, I believe, will continue as many new transformational ideas are springing up in areas including technologies in downhole and surface equipment gauges for data acquisitions, digital well planning platforms that allow collaboration among cross-functional teams, big data analytics, robotics, and process automation to reduce human interventions in routine processes, drone technology for remote monitoring and data acquisition in challenging environment, wearables, cloud computing, and blockchain technology. We all need to brace up for the oil and gas industry’s future with digital innovations and advancement. A new day is coming to the oil and gas industry, I will say.

As a Drilling Engineer, with specialisation in deep water, what does your work entail?

Let me answer this in a broader perspective and will narrow down my response to deepwater operation specifically. A drilling engineer manages the process of design and construction of oil and gas wells. Well design involves processes from initial conceptualisation to evaluating design alternatives and developing viable alternative and field execution of the approved plan. The deepwater aspect is the operating environment, such as land, swamp, shallow water offshore, and deepwater. The offshore fields are categorised based on the water depth, where the drilling rig operates. I have worked on projects in most environments, but I spent more time in the business’s deepwater area as a Field Drilling Engineer, managing oil and gas wells’ execution. I oversee the execution of well plans and provide engineering support to the rig operation while coordinating equipment and material logistics. To put in plain language, we make a hole in the ground to reach the hydrocarbon tank underground and install conduits to the surface to enable oil production into surface tanks.

What is the most challenging project you have delivered? How did you feel after delivering such a project?

I will rather say every project I have been involved with presented different and unique challenges. The business of getting oil and gas out of the ground is very challenging. No two wells are the same, no matter the similarities in design, location, and complexity index. There is something peculiar about every well. To answer your question, all well projects are uniquely challenging. A good one to talk about will be a drillship reactivation from cold stack to start operation with an Intelligent Well Completion (IWC). Being the first time this was done by any operator globally, there was no data to benchmark, and there were lots of deliverables in a short period, and so many loose ends with moving targets. It was complicated coordinating those activities, ensuring the project timeline was not exceeded. The timely and successful rig reactivation and subsequent excellent performance archived by the rig once operational make me and every team member feel remarkable about such a feat.

What would you remember as the biggest challenges you have ever faced in your career? How did you resolve them? Have you ever thought of quitting? Any incident that made you want to quit?

Overcoming challenges is the aura of the drilling engineering profession. I will say we face challenges every day on the job, and we strive to overcome them. I see all challenges as the same; no one is greater. The bottom line is to drill and complete wells safely and efficiently. We manage many uncertainties in this business, and every unplanned eventis an integral part of it. Though we carry out detailed risk assessments and mitigate risks based on proven technologies and processes, some inherent risks, especially those related to mother nature, cannot be identified and often lead to operational challenges. The significant risk that keeps a drilling engineer up at night is the loss of well control. We design and execute wells to maintain the well’s primary control by keeping the bore full of the right fluid at all times and with hydrostatic pressure high enough to balance the bottom hole pressure of the reservoir. In addition to the hydrostatic pressure, we make sure the Blow Out Preventer (BOP) and other well control equipment installed on the well are tested and functional to prevent loss of containment if the primary well control barrier fails. As a drilling engineer, I will conclude by saying that I am quite aware of the challenging environment that we operate in and wake up every day to face and overcome them as they show up. The biggest concern will always be a well-control situation, which I have handled on a couple of occasions in my career. Quitting this career has never crossed my mind, not even once. I take every challenge in the job with grace, learn from, and unto the next.

You have worked in the oil and gas industry both in Nigeria and abroad for about 15 years now. What has your experience been and what would you term your greatest achievement so far?

Working in the oil and gas industry has been very intriguing. I have been most thrilled by the composition and diversity of the teams across the industry globally. I had the opportunity to work with different groups, and the level of expertise you get in the industry from people all over the globe has been mind-blowing. It feels like home everywhere you go; technology, processes, and personnel competence are almost identical, making intercontinental transfers a lot easier. Language and cultural differences can be a significant barrier in working abroad, usually in non-English speaking nations. The language barrier in communication was on full display when I was in South East Asia for a Thailand experience. However, diversity and inclusion highly beneficial for the oil and gas industry; we have more in common than what separates us.

You have worked on different projects with different teams in the US and Nigeria. How has your experience working overseas helped in your new role?

The collaboration opportunity in this industry is ample for me. Working with different cross-function teams in the US and Nigeria has been a thing I desired most about my role. I have borrowed a lot of experience from factory-drilling model in some US operations where wells are grouped by type and batched to enhance efficiency and performance. Though my operation in Nigeria is not factory-based, many principles were borrowed from the factory model to improve efficiency and drive performance.

What would you term the biggest drawback of Deepwater Drilling Engineers in Africa, if any?

Sincerely, I cannot see any drawbacks for deepwater drilling engineers or even any drilling engineer in Africa. Speaking about technical competence, we have incredibly competent people worldwide, and Africa is not an exception. A deepwater drilling engineer in Africa, if given equal opportunity, will perform excellently well compared to peers in other regions; just like a famous saying, drilling is the same everywhere you go if the bit is turning to the left. But dialing it back a bit, there are fewer deepwater operations in Africa than some other parts of the world, limiting the development opportunities for deepwater drilling engineers to acquire a specific skill set peculiar to deepwater drilling.

What would you say is the future of Deepwater Projects? How prepared are you for this future?

The near-term forecast for deepwater projects will broadly tie to the industry’s current trends and uncertainties surrounding oil prices amid COVID-19 pandemic, among other factors. Generally, deepwater projects, being high risk, high cost, and long cycle projects, are primarily affected by political and economic instabilities, growing demand and utilisation of renewable energy, shale oil demand, fluctuating crude oil prices. New deepwater projects are being rolled back by companies because they are costly, and economics for such projects will not be viable in the short term and instead, invest in low risk, low cost, high yield, and short-cycle projects. The longer-term trend shows more deepwater developments and a continued increase in subsea development solutions and digital innovations to drive productivity and safety. The deepwater oil and gas projects are expected to witness a significant growth rate in the next 5-10 years due to upcoming deepwater exploration and production projects in the countries like Brazil, Guyana, Nigeria, and others. Factors, such as technological improvements and improved economics of deepwater and ultra-deepwater projects, several emerging markets are actively supporting the development of deepwater and ultra-deepwater reserves.

Are you involved in any form of mentorship of young people, whether in Africa or abroad, as a way of giving back to society? What is the focus of this mentoring programme, if there is such, and how is it structured?

Yes, I do. I am informally involved in mentoring young Middle/High schoolers in the US. I work with the kids as a personality coach, and guide them using a personality diversity indicator tool and E-colors process to help them identify different personality styles, understand themselves and those around them better. The informal programme allows kids to improve their communication skills, build better relationships, and work more efficiently.

What’s your family life like? We know it could be quite a bit of a challenge for people in your profession, especially when you must be on a project for a long time?

I have a beautiful family of four, two great kids, my wife, and myself. I cannot discount the sacrifice they have been making through my career journey so far. You know how it is for oilfield families. I have worked rotational assignments for most of my career, and this means I missed so many important events in the life of family members – birthdays, graduations, anniversary, and more. So, the challenges are very evident, but I tend to maintain the work-life balance and still be there for the family as much as I can. Being on the job that takes you away from the house for several months in a year, communication is crucial to maintain a family balance and make myself available for that daily even with time zone difference sometimes through phone and video calls.

How rewarding is your job, given the risks involved?

Rewarding enough to pay my bills. Helping my teams achieve excellent results in safety, reliability, and efficiency in delivering business objectives throughout my career has been fulfilling. We work in a high-risk environment, but we have processes and procedures in place to identify risks, thoroughly assess them and eliminate if possible or mitigate them to an acceptable level to prevent injury to personnel or damage to equipment.

How do you relax, when you are not thinking of bottom-hole assemblies or blow-out preventers in the middle of nowhere on the high sea?

That is a hard question for most people in my industry, especially those working offshore. Once you are on board, you are technically on and on for 24 hours though we are organised into 12-hour shifts tours. We engage in different activities like playing ping-pong games, watching sporting events on television, and gym visits when off-tour. We try to make it fun as much as possible, even when you are several nautical miles away from shore.

What would be your advice to aspiring and early career Drilling Engineers?

My advice is going to be short and straightforward. Be adaptable because things do not usually go as planned, and changes are inevitable; learn how to seek help to shorten the learning curve, be intentional in your relationship with others, and continue to learn new skills for professional development. Digital fluency will be critical surviving and navigating the next decade; get on board quickly. In all sincerity, most of the job functions we have in the industry right now will be extinct in no distant future. I believe we can all remember the evolution of personal computers and job functions like typists no longer in existence.

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