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Oil jobs to shift from drilling rig to control room as automation spreads

By bringing together Schlumberger Ltd.'s domain knowledge with Rockwell Automation Inc.'s fundamental control expertise, the newly formed joint venture Sensia is leading the push to bring automation to the oil and gas industry. However, the change will likely come with other industry adjustments, especially around human workflow.

"The next level of efficiency and productivity in the oil and gas industry comes from automation," Schlumberger Executive Vice President of Technology Ashok Belani told attendees during CERAWeek by IHS Markit in Houston on March 11. "At the end of day it is all about productivity."

Rockwell Automation and Schlumberger announced Feb. 19 the formation of Sensia, the first fully integrated provider of domain expertise, measurement solutions and automation to the oil and gas industry. That deal is part of a movement where big oil is joining forces with big tech to try to lower costs and boost productivity. Other notable collaborations include deals between Exxon Mobil Corp. and Microsoft Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC and Amazon Web Services Inc.

"We are talking about efficiency, that is really what our joint venture is all about," Blake Moret, chairman and CEO for Rockwell Automation, said. "It is about preventing unplanned downtime, optimizing output and extending the life of existing wells."

Everything that can be automated is going to get automated, Belani said. As a consequence of automation, the industry will experience a shift in its workforce, including a reduction in the number of workers on a particular drilling rig but also an increase the number of workers in a control room monitoring a larger number of drilling rigs, he said.

In five or six years he expects drilling wells will operate with a single person on the rig, while producing assets will operate without human intervention, "unless you have to physically go out and change something."

On top of the basic automation there is another level of productivity that can be found in taking the data of those control processes, performing analytics on that data and being able to derive additional insights, Moret said.

In this new environment, domain expertise can be just as important as technology, Belani said. The control platform has to connect with the petroleum engineers to help direct the development of the algorithms. Additionally the workforce needs to be comfortable with the technology, which is becoming more and more a part of the critical path, and the software has to match the workflows that workers are being expected to carry out, Moret said.

In this changing environment, the oil and gas industry has to find a way to attract people with expertise and people who work in the cloud.

"So far it is our experience that if you have a good, well laid-out strategy of actually having projects that are real, where you are implementing good machine learning and good deep learning, then the people will come," Moret said.

This will take time. Parts of jobs can be automated with the repetitive, physical labor being the most "automatable," Moret said. "But you have to start with the premise that your companies are competing against the best in the world, and to compete and win, it will require some combination of highly skilled labor and technology. If you start with that premise, jobs are going to change, but if you are successful with highly skilled and successful people, you get to do more with your business and have margins to move into new lines of business," he said.

"This kind of decrease in human activity has been going on for a long time and it is going to continue," Belani said.