Automatic Integrity

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Automated Pigging Systems Bolster Pipeline Preventive Maintenance

2-On-pad-siteHave you ever walked into a machine shop or weld shop, where the floor is clean and the walls are bright and the tools and parts are neatly stacked? It gives one the impression that “it matters.” Being organized is a form of preventive maintenance. It shows your employees quality, cleanliness and order matter. More importantly it shows your customers quality and excellence matters. A clean and organized shop will show defects quicker and in the more obvious locations visually.

So why not do the same for a pipeline? Although no one gets inside the pipeline to see how clean it is, but it is important to keep it clean. The better maintained the inside is the less likely it is to have issues going undetected. And if and when issues are found, more than likely they can be dealt with in a timely manner, which can lead to reducing overall operational costs.

Automated pigging systems are a form of preventive maintenance, whether running a spherical pig to remove liquids or an inspection pig to check for dents and cracks, pigging can help identify issues that can manifest themselves into down time, reduced efficiency and/or lost productivity.

Engineering an automated pig launcher and receiver (L&R) system is not as expensive as one might think. Nor is it much more complicated than manual systems. In fact, automated systems are roughly the same cost if well designed and carefully thought out. The importance of pigging cannot be overstated to help prevent down time, lost productivity and loss of revenue — not to mention, the opportunity to improve safety.

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Generally speaking, pipelines are pigged for a number of reasons. They are cleaned to remove unwanted materials, such as weld wire, dirt and debris. Spherical pigs are typically used to gather valuable liquids, for wet gas applications, which can be sold for a nice profit. Batching is another reason. When pipelines are batching products they need to separate the products. They do this by launching batching pigs that displace one product or fluid or a gas with another. Lastly, and arguably the most important reason pigging is needed, is it can facilitate internal inspection. This internal inspection can be the basis of a preventive maintenance program.

Motivating factors for a maintenance program are federal laws that encourage pipeline owners and operators to periodically inspect their pipelines for public safety reasons. The timing and frequency of inspection depends on the location and population density. As a result, pipeline operators may be required to implement an Integrity Management Plan (IMP). These IMP’s typically incorporate the use of smart pigs, spherical pigs, internal inspection pigs or other inline inspection (ILI) tools as a means to protect the public at large. This aspect of pigging can be automated to a certain extent if the system is designed correctly from the very beginning with cross-functionally and input from many disciplines and stakeholders. Given those reasons, one can quickly realize pigging is necessary, automated pigging can be implemented in some form or fashion and is financially prudent in the long run.

Benefits of Automation

This view is an example of the remote, out of the way, locations where automated pipeline systems can be located and best suited.

This view is an example of the remote, out of the way,
locations where automated pipeline systems can be
located and
best suited.

Historically, manually pigging a pipeline is time consuming and labor intensive due to opening and closing the valves, operating and securing the closure and prepping and loading the pig. It exposes workers to potentially hazardous situations for a considerable period of time. Automation can reduce the time employees are on the skid. A well designed system can cut down the loading time, reduce the number of times a valve is actuated, thus improving labor cost and limiting potential safety concerns with less exposures time.

Automated pig launcher and receiver skids can be very affordable. And with today’s technology and intuitive operator formats, monitoring and controlling them is straight forward to operate. These technology advancements have some upfront cost, investments that soon pay dividends. The payback may come in many forms. Automated systems require less time on site. The intervals between site visits are father apart. The crew needs to visit the site less often. The crews can be smaller. Safety issues can also be reduced.

Automation allows for more efficient use of the operators time in turn reducing the exposure time for employees. This may result in reduced insurance rates, reduced work related injuries, environment, health and safety (EHS) issues, as well as maintenance labor costs and reduced fuel cost.

Other cost improvements or advantages associated with automation include reduced wear and tear on valves. Automated systems can be configured to operate more efficiently. They can be programmed to minimize the valve actuation frequency. Therefore, the valve is actuated less and in turn lasts longer. Consequently, the valve replacement cost is spread out over a longer time frame and the initial investment may have a longer life. This would also translate into less man hours in labor cost replacing expensive valves, less down and equipment rental to boot.

Designed for Automation

The 24-in. underground pipeline protrudes up and out of the ground and connects to the valve just before the skid. The crane in the background can be used to help load the pigs safely.

The 24-in. underground pipeline protrudes up and out of the ground and connects to the valve just before the skid. The crane in the background can be used to help load the pigs safely.

Automation is possible and more feasible when the entire system is integrated and configured as such. To best implement automation the pig launcher and receiver, must allow the product to flow through it. Basically, the launcher and receiver becomes an integral part of the pipeline not just an end point or starting point. With the product flowing through the entire system the automation can work seamlessly in product transportation. This seamless attribute of the design translates to higher long term productivity and likely a more profitable situation with respect to a manual launcher and receiver system.

The work in this industry has been going on a while and will continue to grow for the foreseeable future whether new or existing lines. As the world demands more energy the industry needs to keep pace with delivering and exporting it as well. Competition is steep and energy supplies are increasing, so therefore operators need to find a competitive advantage in all they do. Not so long ago North America was a net importer of energy, but now has turned that around and started to export. The new energy discoveries coupled to an outdated, worn out and troublesome infrastructure is providing a renaissance in pipeline opportunities. Managing these opportunities and associated risks is critical. Pigging while using an automated launcher and receiver system is a proactive method of addressing risk.

The automation takes life with the use of motor operated valves. The platform allows for safe and easy access by workers when needed.

The automation takes life with the use of motor operated valves. The platform allows for safe and easy access by workers when needed.

These opportunities consist of repairing old lines, building new pipelines, modernizing facilities and building brand new pipelines in new regions. It only seems smart, both financially and technologically, to take advantage of these opportunities. Automation is not a silver bullet, but an automated pigging system designed and engineered has many benefits, such as:

  • Automation allows for timed launches.
  • Crew time on the skid is greatly reduced.
  • Maintenance costs, both labor and parts, are reduced.
  • Health and safety related costs are reduced.
  • Insurance cost can be reduced.
  • Productivity of the pipeline will improve.
  • Overall pipeline efficiency can improve with automation.

Automation does have a few prerequisites. There needs to be a power source and a supply of backup power if power is interrupted. Contingency plans have to be clear, in place and understood. Power can come from the grid, electrical generator or solar. The crews and other operators will need to be trained and be expected to have some level of competence to override the system when the odd situation arises. But these issues are really no different or more challenging than that of the past situations with manual launcher and receiver systems.

The fact of the matter is automation is here and is going to stay. It is getting more reliable and available, which is driving the cost down. It pays for itself in the long run. The competition in the energy sector will only get steeper and owners and pipeline operators will need to find every advantage possible to stay safe and profitable for the long haul.

Mikel Janitz is an Oklahoma State University graduate with a degree in Mechanical Design Engineering, and a master’s in Engineering Management. He has more than 20 years experience inventing new products in marine, automotive, oil and energy related fields.

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