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Skate where the puck is going to be

“I skate to where the puck is going to be.” - Wayne Gretzky

I think the person who best explained the strategic thinking behind research and technological development was Wayne Gretzky, the Canadian ice hockey legend. He said: “I skate to where the puck is going to be.” His point was that although he wasn’t particularly fast, he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

Apply that insight to the world of oil and gas development and it’s telling us to develop the technology that will be required by the industry that we will have in 10 and 20 years’ time, not the one we have now.

So, what will that look like? For example, we agree with companies such as Statoil who foresee relocating most of their production equipment from platforms to the seabed where they can operate with much greater efficiency and safety. We think that in a decade or so, the offshore industry is going to be invisible from above water.

Our customers want to cut their costs by 30 or 40%, and they won’t be able to do that without reconfiguring the industry in a spectacular way. Also, offshore oil fields are going to be developed far beyond the convenient continental shelves we’re used to; running conventional platforms or FPSO vessels in waters that are deeper and more remote than ever before. These assets will need to have longer lifecycles with low maintenance and better efficiencies than they do today.

What does this mean for technology players like ABB? Let’s take the cost issue first. If production equipment is located on the seabed it becomes largely autonomous or remotely controlled. We integrate the seabed equipment with our automation platform to provide actionable information to the control room onshore, lowering costs and allowing operators to make efficient, accurate decisions.

But there’s a catch, of course: we have to address tougher data and power requirements to run that equipment. So, even though the production site is more remote, we actually have to know more about it than we ever did before. Offshore machinery will have to be much more reliable than the equipment you’ll find on a platform in today’s industry, and we have to be able to carry out more sophisticated maintenance plans. At the same time, the equipment itself, which will be entirely powered by electricity, has to be able to do more, as we’re beginning to see with the latest compression and pumping technologies.

So we’ve set ourselves the goal to push these technology boundaries and transform projects, to develop products like transformers, switchgear and variable-speed drives that can live in depths of up to 3 km, 600 km from the nearest coastline, and will be able to work without intervention for up to five years.

Each year, ABB dedicates around $1.5 billion to fund research and development around the world.  We’re developing and pushing the boundaries of new technologies to meet the needs of tomorrow’s offshore industry.

To complement that effort, in April we formed an alliance with Aker Solutions, which installs subsea production equipment. This will allow us to optimize the technical interfaces between our new equipment so that they operate as a seamless system. Not only will this improve the effectiveness of our joint solutions, but it will also cut costs and make delivery easier to project manage.

The great prize at the end of this will be an industry that will be able to do more, further away from existing infrastructure, and more efficiently than we do today. Key buzz words like ‘Facility of the future’ and ‘Internet of things’ will become a reality for the oil and gas industry as it transforms to digital.  As the equipment becomes more reliable and intelligent, operators are able to not just get the right data at the right time but they are also able to close the loop and act on the data in front of them.  The drive is now on to bring these solutions to our future customers around the world. At ABB, we are excited to be a part of making industry visions like these a reality.

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