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Technical Leap

Monday, 27 Jan 2014

[Published in The Roughneck]

"Rig 3. It was a conventional drilling rig. We drilled vertical wells east of Red Deer. We used spinning chain. The rig had one little c250 pump."

Brian Krausert, the President of Beaver Drilling Ltd., is talking about his first rig job in the late 60's.

"The rig had a racking capacity of 1800 metres,” he remembers. “It was considered a mid-range rig at the time. Of course, that was all vertical."

Beaver Drilling, like several other Canadian drilling contractors, is building new rigs. And this new equipment is predominantly deeper. Beaver Drilling's newest rig is rated to 6000 metres, the capacity needed for today’s deep-basin long-reach horizontal wells.

Along with this shift to larger rigs, industry is adapting to other changes: rig technology has been evolving rapidly and is fundamentally changing the way rigs are operated.

"One chair, four computer screens, two joysticks."

That’s how Shaun Low, the rig manager for Beaver Drilling 15AC, describes the Driller's Chair on the newest Beaver rig. It's a far cry from the rig Low had started on in 1996 (coincidentally, also Beaver Rig 3): Recalling that work environment, Low says, "There was no automation."

On the rig he runs today, electronic equipment infiltrates every part of the operation. Even his derrickhands run controls with a joystick, rather than handling pipe from the monkeyboard. Every rig component talks to the others through the SCR room - a part of the rig package so different from a conventional rig’s SCR that Beaver Drilling crews have renamed it ‘the Drivehouse’.

Savanna Energy Services Corp. is another company familiar with moving crews from the traditional environment to rigs that are automated.

Ken Mullen, Savanna’s President and CEO, notes that traditionally a driller needed to be highly experienced to understand the ‘feel’ for the rig.

On automated rigs, employees anticipate operational changes and preset these settings on a computer.

This new rig equipment removes the back-breaking labour from a rig employee’s day and, at the same time, speeds up the operation. Where hydraulic equipment needs time to increase rpm’s, electric equipment can power an instant response.

Mullen notes, “This is definitely moving the career from a very physical career to a more technical one as well.”

Still a Place for Traditional Work Ethic

Low has close to 20 years of rig experience behind him, so he – like most of the rig managers in new rig environments - gained his crew experience on a conventional rig.

He explains, "I was raised by the old generation, so I consider myself old school."

But the training basics learned on a conventional rig still translate to his AC rig.

“The equipment is only as good as the guys running it,” says Low.

“The better you’re trained and the more experience you have, the more efficient you are. When you’re running any piece of equipment, you’re part of that machine and what makes it efficient.

At the end of the shift, we feel the accomplishment. We tripped out of hole; we tripped a new bit in the hole. There’s good energy from having a productive day. That’s the same for any rig. Conventional rig work leaves you physically tired. I know my crews are working just as hard, but it’s an exhaustion that hits them mentally instead.”

Learning to Trust a Digitized Rig

This work environment brings big changes for the crew, and the driller is the crewmember who notices these changes the most.

“Operating the rig from a driller’s chair is nothing like the brakehandle,” Low says, “The information is coming to you differently. When you're on the brakehandle, you get a feel for the rig and your control of it. You hear the engine rev and the sound of the pump."

The sensory connection with sound and feel of the rig equipment has been replaced by computers. “When things happen automatically,” says Mullen, “you might not hear the change in operation directly.”

Low agrees:

"When I was a driller, going to make a connection, my eyes were on the drill string. I’d be focused on hookload, but a change in the roaring of the pump engine would alert me to look at the pump pressure gauge. My drillers are alerted to changes by alarms.”

The computerized settings mean Low’s drillers can operate with quicker precision.

“If we want to pump three cubic metres per minute, my drillers don’t have to calculate volume per stroke the way you have to on a conventional rig. They have to trust the equipment, but they have to make sure the equipment is giving the right information. Some of my drillers still like to calculate it out.”

Why These Changes Now?

Rig equipment didn’t see much technical advancement in the 70s, 80s and 90s. This rapid introduction of electronic systems in the last decade is a new experience for the rig fleet.

What is it about today’s environment that is driving this interest in new systems?

First, better designed components – both downhole and above ground - get the job done faster. Cost savings, thanks to advances in things like bit design, created an opportunity for E&P companies to think about a different kind of drilling program. To meet the needs of more demanding drilling programs, rigs introduced more powerful equipment: how can the rig optimize the bit torque, weight and pressure for each formation? How can it steer the bit more accurately and maximize wellbore contact with the reservoir?

Second, this new rig design engineers out some traditional hazards of the work environment. “Most of these advancements have been driven by safety,” says Krausert. “E&P companies have become very safety conscious.”

Mullen agrees but also suggests that the change brings different safety considerations: “It’s easy to become complacent monitoring equipment.”

These Changes will Shape Future Rig Careers

When Krausert compares today’s field crews to those he worked with in the 60s, he determines,

“Crews are much more professional. It’s still hard work, but the people are skilled and committed to their job. Taking a conventional rig hand like Low and putting him on a fully automated rig requires tremendous leadership on his part. He cultivated these leadership skills on conventional rigs.”

Mullen thinks removing the hard physical tasks traditionally associated with rig work will bring new opportunities for rig workers.

“This new equipment frees up people to spend more time on the management aspect. It’s not just about operating the rig. It’s about building a stronger, more capable team.”

When Mullen imagines how the career path might change, he speculates, “Can we give these employees a more interesting role? Absolutely.”