Don’t get dazzled by new technology
- Keeping your pipeline current with automation and sensory technology is important
- Be careful to not spend on “solutions” that don’t solve a real problem
- Stay with what works unless there’s a compelling reason to change
- Have advisors you can trust to help you decide when to bring in new technology
- Develop a sound plan for implementation, including training
In industrial markets – pipelines included – the implementation of new technologies for automation and sensory equipment can be slow. And that’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes, staying with the tried-and-true can be the best solution. So, how do you know when to upgrade and when to stay the course?
Imagine you’re at an oil and gas trade show and a vendor booth catches your eye. You walk over, and you find you’re talking with the founders of a startup.
They promise solutions that will provide you with a detailed real-time picture of your pipeline’s operations. You’ll be able to catch issues before they become serious, find ways to improve efficiency, and improve safety and reliability.
The young entrepreneurs’ enthusiasm for their technology is infectious, although they’ve not yet applied it to applications in the pipeline industry. How do you decide whether it’s worth a closer look?
In this post, we’ll dig into the question of how you keep your pipeline technologically current, so you’re getting the best of what automation and sensory technologies have to offer while avoiding “solutions” that dazzle but don’t deliver.
Two reasons why implementation of automation and sensory technologies is slow in pipelines
There’s often an air of excitement around consumer electronics – the latest phone from a major manufacturer, a crystal-clear flat screen that fills a whole wall, or an automated assistant that will change your life. People line up, camp out overnight, and crash servers with online orders.
By contrast with the consumer world, the world of pipelines seems to change only grudgingly. Why the difference?
First, there are fewer early adopters.
In consumer electronics, there is a large contingent of “early adopters” – people who want the newest thing just because it’s new. There are some people in the pipeline and other industrial sectors like that, but not many.
This is partly because the consequences of failure are so much greater in pipelines – a loss of containment or other problem could result in environmental contamination or a safety issue with significant consequences for employees and the general public. Regulatory sanctions or even civil or criminal legal action could follow. All of this makes pipeline operators understandably reluctant to use unproven technologies.
Second, sometimes the new technology doesn’t address a problem or issue worth solving.
For example, our firm was approached by a vendor with a new way to deal with steel pipe that contained flaws. Rather than replacing the pipe, they suggested, we should use their composite liner pipe. While the solution sounded good, we recognized it would not allow us to meet regulatory requirements for subsequent inspections of the pipeline.
How do you know when it is the right time to upgrade?
Despite some good reasons to proceed with caution, there are times when it’s well worth making the investment to apply the latest technologies in either new or existing projects.
In our experience, there are four main scenarios when this is the case, and pipeline operators can confidently switch out old technology in favor of the new.
- You have a strategic issue to solve.
It could be that you need to improve in a strategic area – perhaps increase revenue, decrease costs, manage risk better, or improve safety and/or security. You might also need to improve an existing process that doesn’t perform well compared with industry benchmarks. For example, you might find that inserting and removing pigs is venting too much gas. This is becoming a big hit to your bottom line. As well, there is more public and regulatory concern now around unauthorized greenhouse gas emissions to atmosphere. Better automated pigging systems can improve your bottom line along with your relations with regulators.
- There are definite, documented benefits to the new technology.
New technology means spending money, training staff, maybe hiring new staff, and rearranging how the company works. But if there are definite benefits on offer, it may be worth the effort and cost.
To see how this works, let’s consider a hypothetical example – a new flow meter and flow computer technology. Should you buy it? It will improve accuracy and repeatability of measurement, which is particularly important in custody transfer and asset tracking. There’s less chance you’ll be missing out on revenue that’s due your company, as well as less chance you will over-charge customers, which helps improve relations. Furthermore, better flow metering can alert you to surges before they become a problem. It can also help you detect leaks faster, so you can take action to fix them sooner. Accordingly, the new metering technology can provide significant improvements in safety and environmental performance for better relations with regulators. With benefits like these, the technological change may be enough of an improvement to make it worthwhile to switch.
- Your current technology is (or will soon be) obsolete.
Sometimes, technology upgrades aren’t just worth it, they’re essential. If a manufacturer indicates that it will no longer be supporting what you have now, this can mean that parts will become difficult to find. The vendor’s technical support people will be increasingly unable or unavailable to help, and the number of employees able to work with the obsolete technology will decline. In this situation, an upgrade becomes a must.
- You’ve hired new people with new skills and new ways of working.
When you onboard new associates, they often have their own ideas on what works and how best to configure the network. It could be that they’re familiar with a different type of technology. And, some individuals are just more inclined to try new things – they keep up to date with the technical journals, conferences, and trade shows, and so they are more on the lookout for new technologies that appear promising. Their ideas warrant serious consideration. They may suggest or recommend technologies that will increase their personal efficiency along with the productivity of your entire organization.
Lean on your vendors and partners to add value
In navigating your choices, vendors and partners can play a useful role – and like any decision, the key is to use that help correctly.
We find that pipeline operators don’t lack information. Their access to Google is just as good as ours, and they can easily carry out their own searches for insights and recommendations. They can attend industry conferences, trade shows, and other in-person and online events. They can browse industry and vendor websites, subscribe to newsletters, and set their Google Alerts to the right key terms.
While it’s important to do the online research and have the conversations with well-informed vendor representatives who have proven trustworthy, sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than an endorsement from an independent party that has first-hand experience with the technology you are considering. This is where firms like HT Engineering may be able to add the greatest value.
At HT Engineering, we regularly work with clients to:
- Help determine if a system is being held back by the currently installed technology and if real benefits can be had from new technologies
- Introduce new ideas or apply relevant ideas from other industries — we have a broad range of experience we draw on to recommend technologies that work well within the realities of pipeline operations
- Help vet and choose between competing solutions
- Design and conduct a feasibility study for the application of either a new or existing technology to a current or upcoming project.
- Create a clear, well-defined, and traceable plan for the implementation of a new technology or system including new installations and switchovers
- Support the installation process to take burden off the in-house staff, especially in situations where a company plans to install new devices along much of the line’s length
- Design and support pilot programs to test new technologies including establishment of criteria for success and measuring results and ROI
To sum up
Technology evolves rapidly. Keeping up with the new options—without getting overwhelmed or sidetracked by the bells and whistles you don’t need—is challenging. Keeping these three rules of thumb in mind can help you avoid investing in what you don’t need, while ensuring you put your resources toward what really moves the needle for your business:
- Stay with what works unless there is a real need to change – such as the vendor no longer supporting your current technology. It’s okay to stay with technology that is a bit behind the latest and greatest consumer technology, as long as the technology is working for your business. Remember that the consequences of failure are much greater in pipeline operation than they are with a consumer product like a new mobile phone.
- Rely on vendors that have proven their commitment and longevity. You might want to support a startup like the one described at the beginning of this post – but maybe do it another way, like investing.
- Always look for the ROI. Always have a business case for your technology investment. In other words, don’t do it because it’s cool. Do it because it works for your business.
At HT Engineering, we walk the talk and focus our own technology investments in solutions that we believe will provide real benefits to our clients. One of these technologies is 3D scanning. Find out how pipeline operators can get the best results by leveraging this technology in this two-minute video.
To learn more about how smart, appropriate automation can benefit you – and how to distinguish between dazzle and delivery – please contact us.