Today’s competitive business environment has firmly established the need for the maximised use of facilities, equipment and resources, making the integration of automated process control one of the key elements of successful contemporary thinking in the offshore industry.

The addition of higher levels of functionality and the improved results achieved, have lent the sphere of industrial process automation increasing importance and with appreciable logistical risk associated with many of the new prospective areas around the globe, the trend is likely to continue.

“The distributed control system often plays a major part in success or failure during the start-up phase.”


Although the applications themselves may be sophisticated, the fundamental principle underlying effective process automation and control remains remarkably simple. The essence lies in the ability to measure process variables and parameters – such as temperature, pressure, volume, composition and flow-rate – and then be able to apply external influence.

In practice, an ascending hierarchical order of control is established – first the field devices, then regulatory control systems, followed by multi-variable control and finally process optimisation – with each dependent on the proper functioning of the level immediately below. The upshot of this is to place huge importance on robust and reliable field devices in the first place.

There is little doubt that down-hole instrumentation has become increasingly featured over recent years, with strong investment in digitally enabled equipment and networks driving significant improvement in both the acquisition and out-putting of data.

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By GlobalData

At the extreme end of this technology continuum there lies the much-heralded digital oil field (DOF) concept, which has already proved a major success for Shell. Developed in collaboration with IBM, Intelligent Agent, Invensys, Microsoft, Science Applications International and Schlumberger Information Solutions, ‘Smart Fields’ technology provided the way to allow complex resources in Brunei to be exploited.

However, while the full benefits of the DOF still remain to be realised, since true system-wide integration stands or falls on the ability to break down the barriers between disparate and previously unconnected business elements, plant-wide integration is a widespread current reality. In this respect, the latest generations of enhanced IT solutions for distributed monitoring, control and automation can embody all aspects of plant operation and thus really make a difference to process, utility, drilling and subsea applications.


BP’s experience with the Clair Project stands as perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of the benefits to be had from taking a comprehensive approach to process automation from the outset.

“Down-hole instrumentation has become increasingly featured over recent years.”

For any new plant, the first year of operation can be difficult, with the distributed control system (DCS) often playing a major part in the success or failure during the start-up phase.

BP research had shown that automation and control issues can be a major contributor to lost production – to the tune of $250m in lost productivity in some cases.

The Clair field, located in 140m of water 74km west of Shetland, was discovered in 1977 and has estimated oil-in-place of up to five billion barrels. Although the field was considered the largest undeveloped resource on the UK Continental Shelf, development was not finally approved until 2001, facilities being installed offshore during summer 2004. First production was achieved in 2005.

To progress the project, which a 1998 study had concluded was not economically viable at that time, efficiency and the rational application of technology were always of paramount importance. With this in mind, once the Clair project received the final go-ahead, Honeywell – competitively selected to provide the Integrated Control and Safety System (ICSS) for the project – was intimately involved in aspects of the detailed planning.

Having a single technology supplier simplified much of the operation, allowing the control and safety system to use a common interface, reduce extraneous inter-system communication and make displays for the user-environment consistent. It also enabled significant design benefits to be achieved. Duplicated instrumentation could be removed, where this would not compromise operation or safety and safety integrity level (SIL) studies used to categorise the platform, while collaboration with BP generated a comprehensive topside process control philosophy.

In addition, the human / machine interface (HMI) was developed to minimise the quantity of information supplied to the minimum necessary to operate the platform safely.

“Automated process control is one of the key elements of successful contemporary thinking in the offshore industry.”

With the solution package effectively tailor made to meet plant requirements – and specifically to address the operational needs for efficient first-year operation – the outcome was to see 95% to 98% uptime in the first three months and improved standards for safety and control.

It is small wonder that BP has recently signed a six-year agreement with Honeywell to provide main automation contractor (MAC) services for its new and existing facilities, to integrate plant operations and automate critical processes to speed up production and improve efficiency.


Aside of Honeywell, a number of other companies – including the likes of ABB, Kongsberg and Yokogawa – are actively working to develop the role of industrial process automation and control to boost the potential of offshore oil fields. The goal is to create a ‘future oil field’ which can finally be operated as a single industrial process – with integrated distributed control systems enabling production to be maximised and the wells, subsea and surface facilities to function at their optimum.

The possibilities of such integrated solutions are substantial. With greater recovery, accelerated production, extended field-life, lower operating costs and enhanced safety levels all on the cards, the putative benefits of using DCS / ICCS as an embedded strategic tool is well realised within the industry.

There is an obvious economic upside to consider too. Raised recovery factors hold the promise of direct financial rewards – and particularly for subsea fields, where upping the conventional 30% to 35% recovery levels of available reserves by even 5% or 10% offers a significant change to field economics and revenue.

In addition, better integration of field devices allows process diagnostics, performance analysis data and operational statistics to improve predictive maintenance scheduling – reducing the number of unplanned helicopter flights when things go unexpectedly wrong.

“The digital oil field (DOF) concept has already proved a major success for Shell.”

As true gateway functionality becomes ever more central to the whole DCS ethos, the goal of fully integrated operation and monitoring of third-party systems will inevitably keep moving closer to reality. In addition, as this general trend towards greater and easier integration continues, the centralisation of real-time data-streams should begin to allow the promise of improved access to resources to at last be realised – not least in difficult geologies.

In the long run, IT automation and control systems should enable often-dispersed competencies and processes to merge in a single operational philosophy – circumventing unplanned downtime, improving asset / resource management and allowing a fast response to shifting conditions.

The roll-out of enhanced automation solutions almost certainly forms the cornerstone of any attempt to establish a truly integrated, intelligent oil field decision environment and though some hurdles remain, the future of offshore industrial process automation looks set to be eventful.