Cover Story:
Hydraulic Fracturing Trends
Opinion: Digitizing well completions reduces the cost to complete a well
The stage is set to introduce autonomous frac sooner than most realize.
Matt Steen, Cold Bore Technology

hen we talk about the digitization of well completions, forget the buzzwords you are used to reading; while they sound nice, they mean nothing. Instead, let’s focus on the concrete, monetizable solutions that operators are realizing right now.

Today, oil and gas companies face one main problem: the cost to complete a well is too high given current commodity prices. Operators need to improve their financial metrics by reducing the cost to complete a well.

That’s where digitization (also called Industrial Internet of Things [IIoT] or Industry 4.0) comes in. First, add sensors to the wellhead. These sensors track operations at the wellhead, creating a common timestamp and format that all parties can use. This replaces the old method where every service has its own timestamp and format. Second, use one centralized operations platform to connect all services on site—every service company on one platform.

Once the wellhead is digitized and all service companies are on one platform using a common timestamp, consider how cost is reduced.

Increase pump time
Every operator wants to increase their pump time each day. The traditional method of verbal communication over a crackling radio is being phased out thanks to Industry 4.0. As a result, an average of 3 minutes per stage, which was formerly lost during a game of telephone between humans on site, is now being used to pump.

Imagine a traffic light turns from red to green and no cars move for 3 minutes. That would be frustrating. Well, that is what happens on a completions site that lacks digitized wellheads. The only (huge) difference is the assets idling on a completions site cost significantly more than a Toyota Camry. Industrywide, it is a $500 million problem each year.

With digital, real-time data from wellhead sensors, supervisors instantly read from the data van the second the well is set to frac. This way, pumps are brought online immediately.

By flushing out the invisible lost time that digitized wellheads expose, operators can save an average of 3 minutes per stage.

For example, in October 2020, EQT Corp., the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., announced that in one year (between the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2020) they experienced a 40% improvement in pumping hours per month per crew and a 35% improvement in stages per month per crew through its utilization of next-generation frac technology and a centralized operating system, which maximizes productive time and operational performance.

With time and greater automation, the potential savings only increase.

Automated flow of data
Automated sensor data are received in real time and actionable. In the past, operators performed their cost reduction analysis after the fact. Industry 4.0 gives humans the information and control at their fingertips, allowing them to make changes in real time.

As pumping time per day has improved year over year, the volume of administrative tasks for supervisors has increased at the same rate. These administrative tasks are time consuming, prone to inaccuracies and inefficient. With automated data capture and flow of data, experienced onsite leaders are freed from taking notes, able to focus instead on higher level operations improvement using IIoT to reduce costs, improve safety and pump longer each day.

Today, humans optimize operations using unbiased digital data, their minds and experience. Soon, algorithms will perform optimization, freeing up humans to support the platform, rather than drive it.

Like the foundation of a house, digitization is the base upon which future layers of automation are being built.

The future: autonomous frac
Digitization has led to a place where each service company’s data talk to the others in a seamless autonomous fracturing operation. Soon, the need for a supervisor to give the verbal go-ahead for fracturing will be eliminated, replaced with a fast, efficient and safe automated process. The human worker will then be free to perform higher-level tasks.

In the past, high-commodity prices disincentivized innovation, but today’s tight market means operators must find new ways to reduce costs and augment the performance of their operations. Just like in the retail, entertainment and manufacturing industries, digitization is undoubtedly the way of the future for frac. Those companies achieving quantifiable results today will be the winners of tomorrow.

Matt Steen headshot
Matt Steen
About the author: Matt Steen is the director of customer optimization with Cold Bore Technology.