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Technology Usage Increasing in Pipeline Market

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Energy companies big on technology, want the same from their customers

Don’t assume the piles of paper in a horizontal directional drilling (HDD) contractor’s office are a sign of disorganization. Instead, they may just be a fact of life — one whose time is drawing to a close.

Jon Heinen has seen this phenomenon at companies large and small. He is commercial business manager for pipeline at Vermeer, and in that role he visits representatives of pipeline construction companies worldwide.

Recently, he was talking with someone from an industry-leading company, and the person pulled out a three-ring binder at least a couple of inches thick that tracked an ongoing project rod by rod.

“Everything was logged every day, manually,” Heinen says.

In this increasingly digital world, that will soon be a thing of the past. And that’s just one small example. Data collection — on everything from individual sections of pipe to operator performance to fleet tracking — and electronic reports are already a reality and becoming more common. Contractors will adopt this technology as they look to improve their efficiency and productivity. But they’ll also need to use technology because their customers will expect it.

Oil and gas companies are ahead of the pipeline construction market when it comes to technology usage, according
to Heinen.

“It’s definitely coming our way,” he says. “It is definitely a trend in the industry, and it’s being driven by the oil companies.”

There are pieces of software on the market that can help a contractor plan a bore. That information is collected in a single electronic report that can be emailed to the project owner, inspectors and anyone else who needs it.

There are pieces of software on the market that can help a contractor plan a bore. That information is collected in a single electronic report that can be emailed to the project owner, inspectors and anyone else who needs it.

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Oil and Gas Companies On Board

Oil and gas companies are fully on board with using technology. One example is telematics, which is commonly associated with the transmission of information from vehicles and equipment back to an organization. Telematics can be used to track things like machine location, maintenance needs, fuel consumption and idle time.
Heinen says energy companies are monitoring individual vehicles and pieces of equipment, as well as operators.

“They’re tracking speed, hours, locations, employee breaks,” he says.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is another hot technology in the oil and gas industry. It is the use of radio waves to transfer data to identify objects. Pipeline owners are placing RFID tags on each individual section of pipe to monitor its usage and even stresses.

In vertical oil drilling, RFID tags, in the form of capsules, are being dropped into drilling fluid to give companies a better idea of what’s occurring downhole. They can even send commands to tools. For example, an RFID tag could tell a certain valve to close by 7 percent.

Save the Paper

This is just a sampling of the technology used by energy companies. The point Heinen is making is that they believe strongly in the ability of technology to help them improve their operations, and they’ll eventually come to expect their partners to share this belief. This includes pipeline construction contractors.

“The oil and gas companies want to know that the asset that’s put in the ground, which they own, is meeting their expectations,” Heinen says.

So what are some of the tools that can help meet these expectations?

One goes back to paperwork. That thick binder detailing an installation? It is cumbersome, time-consuming and difficult to share with a project owner.

Digital planning tools assist in addressing these issues. There are pieces of software on the market that can help a contractor plan a bore. That information is collected in a single electronic report that can be emailed to the project owner, inspectors and anyone else who needs it. Heinen says project owners are demanding more and more documentation, from project plans to as-builts to the final report, and they want that information in electronic files.

An example of one of the products that does this is the InSite BoreAid design tool by Vermeer. Users input key details for an HDD job, such as soil conditions, product type, the drill being used and more, and the tool provides a plan that can calculate bend radii, analyze pipe stress, identify potential inadvertent returns, anticipate pullback loads and estimate drill fluid needs.

Fleet Management

In the U.S. and Canada, pipeline installation crews often work throughout their home country, spending weeks away from their home base. And many companies treat each crew as essentially its own business unit. Knowing exactly where those crews are, what’s happening with the machines and what’s happening on the jobsite is critical. Technology now allows that sort fleet of management to be done with computers and even smartphones.

GPS-equipped machines can be located down to a specific latitude and longitude, and some systems let users view the machine on an online map, like Google Maps. Some tools let owners set a virtual boundary known as a geofence, and the owner will receive an alert if the machine moves outside of that. Heinen knows of a contractor who had this feature on a machine, and one weekend the piece moved from one side of town to the other. Someone had stolen the semitrailer it was on.

“He just called the police, said, ‘Hey, I think something funny’s happening here,’ and they went right to the guy’s house and arrested him,” Heinen says.

Fleet management tools can also monitor idle time. Unnecessary idling is something a crew may not even realize they’re doing. But seeing the data can make them more aware of the issue and cause them to shut down a machine when it makes sense. That can lead to a reduction in fuel consumption and in the hours on a piece of equipment.

“Just think of the residual value of machine, after three years, that has fewer hours on it,” Heinen says. “It’s done the same amount of work for a company, it just doesn’t have the
idle time.”

Data collection — on everything from individual sections of pipe to operator performance to fleet tracking — and electronic reports are already a reality and becoming more common. Contractors will adopt this technology as they look to improve their efficiency and productivity.

Data collection — on everything from individual sections of pipe to operator performance to fleet tracking — and electronic reports are already a reality and becoming more common. Contractors will adopt this technology as they look to improve their efficiency and productivity.

Maintenance

Maintenance also falls under fleet management. With crews spread across large distances, keeping track of maintenance can be challenging. Also, let’s face it, some crews may not be the best at alerting the service team of maintenance needs.

Technology now allows both scheduled and unexpected maintenance to be monitored remotely on individual machines. So a maintenance technician at a company’s home base in Texas can see what’s happening with an HDD working in North Dakota and another in Oklahoma, a trencher in Pennsylvania, and so on.

If a machine is having an issue, some tools will automatically send out a fault code. This can help catch something before it becomes a bigger issue. It also aids with diagnosis and getting the right tools and parts ready, which can speed up repairs.

Heinen tells the story of a Vermeer dealer able to help multiple customers with this type of technology. InSite Fleet, a remote monitoring system offered by Vermeer, tracks machine maintenance and location. That information is available online via a desktop computer or a mobile device to both contractors and their Vermeer dealers. A Vermeer dealer in Wisconsin getting ready for a service trip logged into InSite Fleet and noticed that other customers working the area needed service as well. This allowed both the dealer and customer to save time and expense because the service technician only needed to make one trip instead of several.

In any construction field, having equipment that is available when it is needed is important. In the pipeline market, it is essential. Many pipeline project specifications say if a crew misses a designated amount of time, that contractor is off the job. Heinen has seen this happen.

“If you reach a certain amount of time not in operation, you’re out, and the next guy’s in,” he says.

Heinen also was recently visiting a project where the contractor had a backup for every piece of equipment just in case there was a problem. How much better would it be to know what’s happening inside that equipment, to know what its upcoming maintenance intervals are, to know its hours, to know that you’ll get an alert if an unanticipated issue arises?

Labor

It’s widely accepted that finding quality crew members, especially operators, is one of the biggest issues facing the industry. Technology that shows jobsite productivity, maintenance needs and fuel consumption can help managers evaluate employees.

It can also help employees learn how to work more optimally. With margins and deadlines getting tighter on pipeline construction projects, that can make a big difference for a contractor.

‘This is Coming’

Contractors are warming up to technology, Heinen says, but one of the challenges for them, especially with telematics, is the desire for a common platform. Many companies have mixed fleets with equipment from various manufacturers. They would like to have one system to monitor data across the fleet.

“It’s the drill, the truck, the trencher and more,” Heinen says. “They have all these different pieces of equipment
that they want to report to one common platform.”

This may have kept some people from adopting telematics, but Heinen says many pipeline contractors already are on board with technology, and he expects usage to continue to increase as people recognize the value and as project owners demand it.

“There’s definitely an awareness among pipeline contractors that this is coming,” he says.

“They’re trying to become as efficient as possible.”

Gregg Hennigan is a features writer for Two rivers Marketing, Des Moines, Iowa.

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