Pipeline inspection forms the backbone of integrity management and maintaining public and environmental safety. Inline inspection (ILI) tools — sometimes referred to as smart pigs — can provide a variety of data points about the condition of a pipe segment.
Like a train loaded with various cargo cars, ILI tools can combine technology to provide wall thickness measurements, geometry assessments, crack detection, mapping and other key analysis to determine if there are any immediate threats or anomalies to check up on during future inspections. Pipeline inspection companies partner with operators to perform regular assessments to ensure that the overall system runs efficiently and safely, protecting the public, the environment and the operator’s bottom line.
In today’s inspection market, pipeline companies are demanding improved accuracy and services that fit within their budget, says Adrian Chavez, general manager of A.Hak Industrial Services US LLC, based in Houston. With its corporate headquarters in Holland, the company also has an office in Canada and other parts of the world. While the company specializes in ultrasonic testing (UT), Chavez has direct experience with a variety of pipeline inspection technologies — including magnetic flux leakage (MFL) and caliper tools — in his 20-plus years in the industry.
“The pipeline inspection market still continues to be one of selective need and technology improvement,” he says of the driving forces in the market. “Cost analyzing continues to be of vital importance, and more inspection companies are taking a combined technology approach, using more than one technology in a single run.”
By combining inspection technologies, service providers can provide analysis on a variety of pipe conditions instead of focusing on just one type of threat.
“Customers give up their line for us to inspect it, and they want a bigger bang for their buck for having to alter the normal operating mode of that line,” Chavez says. “That’s productivity for them, that’s money. The more technology we can provide during an inspection, the more accurate the results, the more value our customers receive.”
Another way Chavez sees the industry as improving is through the contributions of multiple stakeholders.
“Not only are the major service providers improving technology and generating newer solutions, but we’re seeing that from smaller companies too,” he says. “That type of activity shows there is a demand in our industry. With miles and miles of pipelines out there, no one company can address it all.”
The focus on technology advancements is driving improvements in the pipeline inspection industry, says Brad Edwards, CEO of NDT Global LLC USA, based in Houston. With its main R&D facility in Germany, NDT Global is a leading supplier of ultrasonic pipeline inspection and data analysis, focusing on onshore and offshore pipelines worldwide. In addition to the United States and Germany, the company also has offices in Australia, Canada, Ireland, Mexico, Spain, UAE and the UK.
“The market is definitely improving,” Edwards says. “I see several factors influencing this growth. Of course, more pipeline construction eventually leads to more inspection needs. Increased pipeline regulations also impact the market. However, technological advancements are the biggest driving factor behind market improvements.”
Edwards notes that these advancements now allow the industry to inspect previously unpiggable pipelines and have also led to better detection and sizing capabilities.
“I believe there is a concerted effort by pipeline operators to continue to educate themselves on the capabilities and limitations of the emerging and available inspection technologies,” he says. “This allows for more informed decisions regarding which inspection technologies are best applied to which pipelines based on specific integrity threats.”
Despite recent slowdowns in the pipeline construction market due in part to low commodity prices in the last two years, Edwards says the “U.S. pipeline inspection market is somewhat immune to oil and gas prices.”
“When the prices fall, pipeline operators need to ensure that their product can flow as efficiently as possible, without interruption from unexpected occurrences,” he adds. “I also believe pipeline operators truly want to ensure their assets operate as safely and efficiently as possible for the public, the environment and their customers.”
Another influence on the pipeline inspection market was the introduction of new recommended practice (RP) guidelines from the American Petroleum Institute (API). “Recommended Practice for Assessment and Management of Cracking in Pipelines,” API RP 1176, published July 1, 2016, provides guidance for the industry and cites UT inspection technology as “integral progress in the industry,” according to Edwards. The RP states that, “Ultrasonic tools should be considered first for most cracking applications. Magnetic tools should be considered when ultrasonic tools are not feasible due to pipeline physical and operational parameters or in addition to the use of ultrasonic tools.”
The ability to detect multiple kinds of threats has become more important to the pipeline industry.
“Over the last year, we have seen an increased focus on interacting threats,” Edwards says. “Interacting threats in a pipe segment can result in an increased chance of pipeline failure. Although an individual defect may not be of major concern, if multiple types of defects are found at the same location, the condition might be critical for the safe operation of the same pipe segment.”
With the increased focus on pipeline integrity over the past decade, Edwards says ILI plays a “vital role” in maintaining the safety and reliability of oil and gas infrastructure.
“It is the best way to provide the most data and overall condition of pipeline assets to operators,” he says. “Operators have used ILI to successfully locate and address, through either repair or replacement, pipeline anomalies that had the potential to fail in the short term. In the longer term, operators use this data, with other information such as close interval surveys, aerial surveys and geographical information to continually monitor risks and assess the integrity of their pipelines for future service.”
Inspection companies work with asset owners to ensure proper inspection and maintain asset safety and reliability, Chavez adds.
“We provide a holistic approach with our customers to provide a comprehensive assessment,” he says. “We provide the technology to meet their needs, and we have a feedback loop with our customers to make sure we’re meeting their demands.”
It’s crucial to assess what the needs of the pipeline owner are prior to going out into the field to conduct an inspection and identify threats, Chavez says, adding that verifying the collected data is “extremely important to us and our clients.” Creating a reliable feedback loop helps ensure data is accurate and the inspection technology is performing optimally.
“We provide that feedback to our engineering team to either make changes to the technology or validate our processes,” he says. “We are validating our technology via customer verification digs and our own test loops continuously.”
To stand as industry leaders, Edwards says pipeline inspection companies “have a responsibility to share our knowledge” on inline inspection, such as through training, hosted workshops and participation at industry events.
Chavez agrees that cooperation between inspection companies, asset owners and other industry stakeholders helps improve the industry.
“Collaboration, that’s huge,” he says. “It’s vital in delivering pipeline integrity. We participate in conferences, symposiums and direct meetings with our customers. We take a ‘lessons learned’ approach. We regularly invite customers to our facilities to look at ways to improve technology.”
The industry demands such a high level of partnership, Chavez says. Improving inspection technology and practices can’t be one-sided.
“It would be very arrogant of any service provider to say, here’s our product, let us tell you what you need,” he says. “We as inspectors work in the environment, they tell us their needs and we adjust the technology to meet that need. We’ll see a lot more collaboration with that approach.”
There are three primary methods of inspecting oil and gas pipelines, Edwards says. They are direct assessment, ILI and hydro-testing. He says UT technology has provided the biggest source of new innovation in the inspection market, noting that ultrasonic ILI offers “the most complete solution for operators.”
“It provides them with the most data, which allows the operator to understand the condition of the entire line and focus efforts and repair budgets where the money really needs to go,” he says. “By this I mean it’s feasible for them to reduce costs overall, as they can be more proactive with how they manage their lines and can better comprehend the line’s future life and fitness for service.”
UT tools use a series of special sensors to measure the wall thickness of pipelines.
“The increased number of sensors allows the tool to inspect the full 360-degree circumference of the pipe in greater resolution than ever before,” Edwards explains. The development of improved UT technology has allowed for increased data sensitivity, the detection and sizing of smaller defects and improved crack assessment.
All of these improvements lead to greater accuracy in inspection services.
“Something I’ve seen not only at this company, but with other companies as well, is improvements in inspection tool resolution that sample at a faster rate,” Chavez says. “A customer may run their line at 1 m/s when they slow down crude oil lines, and they’ll lose about a million dollars, and then the inspection costs them another few hundred thousand dollars. Increased sample speed helps avoid impacting their bottom line.”
Continuous technological development is paramount in improving efficiency in the industry, Edwards argues. Improvements have led to speeding up inspection rates while also providing accurate data that allows pipeline operators to maintain integrity and minimize costs. He points to inspection tools that offer inspection velocities of up to 4 m/s, overcoming the need for pipeline flow reduction while still providing state-of-the-art results.
“Such technological advances have other positive knock-on effects as well,” he says. “With improved technology comes an increased first-run success rate (FRS). The greater the industry FRS rate, the greater the ability for our customers to control costs.”
Technology improvements also come in the form of size, allowing better electronics in a smaller package, Chavez says. This allows inspection companies to combine measurement tools and minimize the number of ILI runs to conduct a thorough assessment, which reduces costs related to labor and productivity loss from slowing down throughput.
“We can provide more than one technology in a single run to better assess any defects or anomaly, with increased views,” he says. “When I started in the industry, we ran one tool at a time and then had to sync the data manually. It took a lot more time to get the data analysis. If there’s a serious threat in a pipeline, time is of the essence.”
The ability to better assess defects and anomalies improves categorization of the reported features, Chavez says. That improves efficiency in pipeline operations and maintenance.
“Any time you have better categorization of reported features, you add value,” he says. “We’re developing new technology to better categorize features to provide a more accurate assessment. Providing such data as depth and length of the feature helps the customer make a better decision about that defect and whether to make a repair.”
Along with improved inspection technology comes more reliability and streamlined services, Chavez adds. Tools are now more maintenance-friendly and allow for faster response times.
“As an industry, we went from what was sometimes a two-week cycle in tool maintenance turnaround to a two- or three-day cycle or even a same-day turnaround in some cases,” he says. “That type of efficiency and reliability is to our customers’ advantage.”
Being a Leader
As integrity takes on a more high-profile role in the pipeline industry, it’s only natural that inspection companies take on more of a leadership role to ensure overall industry success and prosperity.
“Being a leader means making the long-term investments in R&D that will bring about breakthrough improvements,” Edwards says. “In this industry, it takes three to five years to bring new tool technology to full commercial readiness, and so it needs inspection companies that are willing and able to make this type of sustained investment in the industry.”
Furthermore, Edwards adds that inspection companies also have huge repositories of data from inspections that can provide insights and lead to additional technology advancements.
“When combined with operator data on dig verifications, this [data]provides great potential for long-term improvements,” he says. “Inspection companies are now applying ‘big data’ techniques to manage and analyze this information.”
Chavez agrees that continuing to develop new technology and solutions is critical to the pipeline industry. He urges inspection companies to pay attention to the voice of their customers.
“Listening to the needs of the pipeline industry puts us in a position to better develop new technology to meet their needs,” he says. “It helps us proactively introduce solutions.”
Chavez refers to this approach as a “culture of partnership” for developing new solutions.
“But it’s not only a partnership,” he says. “I view it like we’re employees of companies we’re serving. They have a say in how we develop our services. I think every ILI company should follow suit.”
Increased partnership between inspection companies and pipeline operators, Chavez says, will lead to better feedback from customers and allow service providers to introduce new technology to meet their integrity needs.
“No one company can do it all,” he says. “There is technology out there that addresses every need, but there’s not one ILI tool that addresses every need. Innovative companies are ones that seek out
new technology. Our main objective should always be to prevent loss of life, protect the environment and serve the integrity needs of our customers.”
Bradley Kramer is managing editor or North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.