The oil and gas industry often uses manual processes. And manual processes generally increase the margin for error and safety risks. Hydraulic fracturing, in particular, uses manual processes for some of its most basic and most essential tasks such as tracking iron.
Logistics aside, the labor costs incurred to manually track as many as 1,000 pieces of iron are extremely hard on companies’ bottom lines. Tracking each piece of iron with pencil and paper and maintaining a physical paper trail to ensure every piece can be used when it’s needed in the field is a major challenge. At any given jobsite, the manual process of tracking iron usually requires the efforts of two to three employees for as many as three to four days. Manual iron tracking doesn’t just absorb a lot of time — it is also fraught with the potential for human error and mistakes created by everyday challenges in the field.
Consider, for example, that one person is typically responsible for reading the serial numbers while someone else enters the information. Physically viewing the serial numbers can be problematic enough. Add to that another person taking down the information, and the potential for error dramatically increases. Communication difficulties are compounded ever more when a piece of equipment’s serial number is covered in mud or facing the ground, making it nearly impossible to read. Or imagine if the equipment is palletized and stacked on top of each other. No doubt those pallets must be moved to enable personnel to see and write down each serial number. Such are the daily challenges of field operations in frac, and thus, the reason that manual tracking is rife with difficulties.
As if this were not enough, consider that from a compliance and safety standpoint, certificates must be kept on every piece of equipment, and personnel must be able to retrieve certificates at a moment’s notice should issues arise. With manual tracking, companies usually address this by keeping a binder of all certificates. However, paper certificates create a mess and result in additional maintenance problems. If an inspector requests to see certificates for the equipment an operator has in use, employees are forced to comb through files that are kept at the office. Additionally, paper copies are extremely easy to lose or damage. If a requested certificate can’t be produced when requested, it could lead to downtime. That downtime results in lost revenue–something operators must minimize in order to have the healthiest bottom line.
In addition to these challenges, manual iron tracking can increase costs and reduce profits in other ways. Ideally iron tracking is done on a weekly basis. However, manual tracking often isn’t performed weekly, because it is so disruptive and time-consuming — making it very difficult to accurately track usage and maintain a running inventory of equipment. It is next to impossible for crews to truly know what equipment is already on site and can potentially lead to unnecessary purchases. Any unnecessary purchases directly reduce operators’ profits and prevent them from being responsive and nimble in the field. This also makes it difficult for an operator to know if it can take on another job, as they can’t exactly be sure what equipment is available.
The Internet of Things (IoT) has benefited the oil and gas industry in many ways, and one of the ways it’s made a substantial impact is the paradigm shift created by tracking iron with radio frequency identification technology (RFID). The largest oil and gas player in Mexico experienced this firsthand when it switched from manual tracking to RFID.
In Mexico, the typical amount of iron on a frac site is approximately 450 pieces. Testing and completion can require as many as 500-1000 pieces of iron. Combine that with a rough, unforgiving terrain, and manual tracking becomes an extremely difficult, time-consuming, error-prone process that can negatively impact pumping hours.
The Mexican operator had an iron fleet that numbered more than 2,000 pieces of iron at any given time. Tracking iron with a pen and paper was an especially painful process for this company, because their Quality Control team assigned each piece of iron three unique serial numbers: the OEM serial number, a group unit number and an internal serial number. Manual tracking meant frequent typos due to transposed or missed digits, further complicated by equipment covered in mud or facing hard-to-reach angles. Tracking iron manually typically required several employees several days to complete. With so many pieces of iron, being able to present certificates upon arrival at a rig was also a challenge. The company sought to reduce the amount of time to track iron and positively impact its Quality Control processes concerning certificates and accurate supply counts to speed up the setup process and enjoy more pumping hours.
How Did They Do It?
The company implemented the SPM RFID technology and RFID Mobile App in its Quality and Warehouse Departments. The ease and accuracy of the RFID system enabled the company to realize significant reductions in non-productive time (NPT) and marked improvements in Quality Control processes. Rather than utilizing multiple workers over several days to track iron, the RFID system allowed one worker to accomplish this task in just a few hours. Quality Control was now able to instantly produce certificates at rig zones and immediately knew which pieces of iron were available for use, enabling faster setup. The operator also used the RFID system to easily track failure rates, empowering their purchasing decisions. Reordering parts with higher reliability resulted in increased efficiency and pumping hours in the field.
The RFID system includes the mobile app loaded onto an iPhone or Android device and a handheld reader. Not only does the RFID app allow serial numbers and certificates of SPM and other OEM equipment to be scanned, but it also enables employees to edit approved attributes of data in the field. Recently SPM has added a new feature allowing users to elect to receive autonomous notifications of upcoming inspection dates of assigned assets. These alerts come twice: the first one two weeks prior to the maturity of the inspection date, and the second on the day before inspection is required. This provides an additional layer of assistance to the users to better help manage and track the field iron.
The scanning process is very simple and straightforward. Using either a Zebra Technologies 8500 or Technology Systems Ltd. (TSL) 1166 UHF RFID handheld reader, employees scan each piece of iron’s serial number in seconds, without moving pallets, removing shrink wrap, or trying to read a serial number in a difficult-to-access area. Employees simply point and scan, and it’s captured in the app. Not only is this a more complete way to track iron, but it also eliminates the human error aspect.
With RFID, operators have the flexibility to allocate iron anywhere they want because they have a true, complete view of what iron they actually have and where it is located. Spare iron can be seen at a glance, giving crews the ability to instantly know if they can pick up another job. This speed and agility make operators more competitive and increases their ability to meet customers’ needs, while also increasing revenue.
Most jobsites are remotely located. Oftentimes it’s impossible to find a Wi-Fi or strong cellular signal in the field for uploading scanned serial numbers and certificates. The SPM RFID app solves the issue of low signal strength by allowing personnel to scan without a signal and then upload the scanned data once they connect to a cell tower or Wi-Fi signal. Being able to scan without a signal results in uninterrupted employee workflow.
The time and labor cost savings as well as responsiveness created by the RFID app enables operators to carve out new levels of efficiencies and nimbleness to give them a competitive edge. Reducing costs and NPT while acquiring additional jobs can strengthen a company’s profit margins and position it for greater success. And adopting IoT technology like RFID is a solid investment that pays for itself quickly, providing short- and long-term benefits.
Collin Garner is product manager for the flow control product line for SPM Oil & Gas. Joseph E. McFarland is product manager for field electronics for SPM Oil & Gas. SPM Oil & Gas was launched in February 2021 by Caterpillar Inc. and provides products and service solutions to oil and gas customers in upstream production, transportation, refining and related industries.