The oil and gas industry, like many critical industries, is looking to digitalization to bring operations into the modern era, improving efficiency, productivity and safety across every aspect of the business.
There are many unique challenges, however, to creating the communications infrastructure that will underpin this transformation. Refineries are vast, outdoor environments, with many moving parts that need to be tracked. The networks supporting these complex, sprawling installations are often a patchwork of different technologies, all at varying states of modernization, further complicating the already fragile digital transformation efforts that some oil and gas companies have underway.
To transform the oil and gas industry, networks need to be reliable, powerful and secure. LTE private networks can deliver what the industry needs right now while laying the foundation for a seamless transition to 5G and beyond, giving IT and OT managers a single network that’s easier to manage than several disparate technologies. And it will result in value creation – the use of advanced connectivity to optimize drilling and production throughput and improve maintenance and field operations that could eventually add up to $250 billion of value for oil and gas upstream operations by 2030, according to McKinsey.
A primary network to centralize and future-proof operations
Oil and gas facilities are complicated operations and will likely always have a mix of technologies. However, a strong cellular 3GPP-based network, on 4G/LTE or 5G, can act as the primary network, supporting and linking things like Wi-Fi or hard-wired systems together into a cohesive unit that can be monitored and controlled from a central location.
With a more patchwork system of separate and unconnected networking technologies, IT and OT managers have to manage all of those systems individually. Each technology has to be updated, they may require separate subscription and maintenance costs, and workers have to be trained on all of them. With a private cellular network as the primary network, there can be increased operational simplicity and links to other technologies – for example, a cellular network could terminate a Wi-Fi access point, or even lead to an ethernet cable for applications requiring a wired connection (without running a cable through the entire facility).
Cellular networks are cost effective and scalable, while providing superior coverage. For example, an LTE radio can generally cover two to four times the areas of a Wi-Fi access point. This equipment can also support much higher device density – a LTE small cell radio can handle more than 800 connected devices versus a Wi-Fi access point which can only support between 30 to 50 connected devices at a time. When looking at a refinery that covers three to four square miles of territory, it may be easier to accomplish connectivity with three to eight LTE radio nodes versus tens or even hundreds of Wi-Fi access points.
With increased scrutiny on critical infrastructure, the security and encryption built into the 3GPP standards and proven robust commercial network deployments, private networks will play a major role in the digitalization of oil and gas – keeping data onsite and self-contained, limiting its vulnerability to malicious actors.
Reliable, secure connectivity to power innovation
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) can transform the industry – but a robust, reliable network is needed to do so. With reliable connectivity, oil and gas companies can look to bring in exciting IIoT use cases built on LTE and especially 5G.Connected devices like phones, tablets and sensors, as well as wearables, will allow workers to have up-to-the-minute information like schematics and maintenance records at their fingertips, enabling them to complete jobs faster. Drones, that allow remote inspections, could reduce overall inspection times by 90 percent, as well as reducing downtime costs caused by manual inspections by 65 percent, according to Ericsson research.
When problems arise, hands-free voice and video calls, or AR/VR goggles, will allow maintenance techs to address issues without being on site, getting operations back up and running faster.
Beyond productivity measures, the superior connectivity of private cellular networks will increase worker safety. Remotely controlled machines such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and drones can cover large areas quickly and can be deployed in places human workers can’t reach, or where they would be unsafe.
And with oil and gas companies looking to reduce their environmental impact, connectivity through the IIoT can also play a role. Sensor networks powered by private cellular networks can prevent environmental hazards by tracking fugitive emissions, methane leaks and corrosion. The near real-time data flows of these networks will also allow staff to spot problems like leaks earlier, and will enable energy-efficient spending of such common production assets as frequency drives, compressors and electric motors.The digitalization value potential
The upside to digitalization is massive. An Ericsson and Arthur D. Little study found that a digitally-enabled workforce is 8.5 percent more productive, has 48 percent less loss from health and safety incidents, and that companies see an 8 percent reduction in operational spend, due to increased effectiveness.
Beyond the need to improve productivity, the industry is facing multiple pressures at once – a need to streamline operations, improve worker safety and harden systems against cyberattacks, even as more and more aspects of day-to-day operations are digitized. Private networks give oil and gas companies a primary network to manage and coordinate the disparate technologies that exist in oil and gas facilities – providing a platform for innovation that will drive value today and into the future.Source: Ericsson