Holistic View to Rig Design, Construction Needed to Minimize Software Risk



The growing use of software to run drilling rigs, coupled with the regulatory and operational challenges of the post-Macondo world, means that drilling rig contractors should take a more holistic view to reducing control systems software and hardware integrated-related non-productive time (NPT) and schedule delays.

According to Athens Group's third annual International Benchmarking Survey, this holistic approach include designing, building and testing a drilling rig as an integrated system, rather than testing individual systems before they are put together. Athens Vice President of engineering Bill O'Grady said this would allow for software risks to be addressed earlier in a rig's lifecycle.

The fact that most drilling equipment used today is software-driven presents challenges, and delays in rig delivery and problems integrating software systems mean lost revenue and additional costs for drilling contractors. "Typically, we see a collection of equipment built and tested separately and put together late in the process," said O'Grady. The task of integrating software systems also is spread among employees, rather than one person assigned the job. "Unless these systems integrated, you won't get the benefits of the software programs."

The study focuses on the cost and causes of control systems software and hardware integration-related NPT and safety incidents, and seeks to identify opportunities and barriers to reducing NPT and was as initiatives planned for 2010 and 2011. While progress has been made in reducing software and hardware-related NPT, the study found that the rate of control system and hardware integration NPT is 67 to 86 percent higher than the acceptable rate, depending on the age of the asset.

The top causes of NPT, with the exception of lack of shipyard experience, which is now last on the list, remain the same from last year's survey. The top causes include overextended equipment vendors, lack of software-experienced engineers, and late delivery and testing of software.

Many engineers lack software experience since oil and gas industry traditionally has been a hardware intensive company with mechanical control systems on board drilling rigs. In the past decade or so, the benefits of introducing software programs to control functions on board rigs began to take hold in the industry, but engineers more familiar with hardware are still adapting to using software.

Athens CMO Christine Lowry also attributes the lack of software experience to the 1980s energy industry bust, when many workers were laid off. This bust likely scared off potential recruits who would have entered the industry in the 1990s, many of whom would be familiar with computer software.

While software systems became prevalent on drillships and semisubmersibles in 1998, so few rigs are typically delivered each year, with the exception of last year, that experience installing integrated software systems is still lagging in comparison to other industries. The year 2010 was an exception, and equipment vendors were stretched thin due to 48 high-specification rigs delivered, the largest number of deliveries ever.

Two trends O'Grady sees among rigs is that older platforms with electromechnical systems need to be completely refurbished with a software system, and rigs built in 2000 through 2004 coming in for refurbishments also require software upgrades. Rigs such as the ENSCO 8500 series are the same in theory, but because software versions change, there is not a lot of duplication.

The survey found that adoption of simulation testing for topsides, improved rig crew training, and implementation of alarm management software are the top three opportunities for reducing NPT.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents in the survey indicated they would implement improved rig crew training this year, with training needed specifically targeted at the operation of complex integrated software control systems, and the maintenance and configuration of complex integrated software control systems. Survey respondents also included the adoption of simulation testing for topsides and implementation of alarm management software in their top three NPT reduction initiatives planned for this year.

O'Grady noted that simulation can be a valuable tool to test software, but choosing the right simulation and at the right time in the product lifecycle is critical for success. "The simulator also needs to be independently verified to ensure it is testing appropriately," he noted.

Implementing alarm systems on rigs requires a different approach with high temperature, high pressure wells offshore. More alarms are needed, but alarms must be placed where they matter most. "If too many are in place, people will likely ignore them or turn them off," O'Grady said.

One recommendation made in the report is drilling contractor's use of a concept of operations document, a well-known practice in automation and manufacturing process, for the design of newbuild rigs and refurbishment of existing rigs, said O'Grady. The concept of operations document, in which the end user describes what tasks they want an asset to perform, is missing in a lot of highly integrated assets such as drilling rigs.

O'Grady also noted that rig owners are now taking more control of the commissioning phase of rigs. This approach is a shift from the original owner-furnished equipment in which a rig owner specified to a shipyard what particular pieces would go on a rig. However, the implementation of software on rigs began to cause delays with rig deliveries. Shipyards began suggesting that, while shipyards could standardize some equipment parts for rigs, more specialized pieces with software-dependent parts should be put in place by the owner.



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