July 10, 2020 • 5 min read
Pipelines: how technology is bringing certainty to projects
Pipelines are critical to delivering energy from its source to the end user.
Over long distances, pipelines emit less carbons emissions than transporting energy with trucks, trains and ships and are much safer.
But as our dependence on pipelines grows, managing their construction needs to be easier. Coordinating construction contractors, community stakeholders, landowners and a myriad of approvals is challenging. And with complexity comes vulnerability to incomplete or out of date information that can eat away at budget, time and the most critical consideration for every stakeholder: safety.
People outside the industry think you just get some pipes, weld them together and bury them in the ground, but the complexity isn’t necessarily in the mechanical design. The complexity is in the number of stakeholders, permits, authorities and landowners. It’s a high-stakes balancing act that’s critical to the success of the asset.
Why is it so hard to construct a pipeline?
Pipelines cross properties, roads, railways, rivers, farms and many other terrain features, sometimes within the space of a few kilometers. And keeping track of all these considerations, as well as the quality of the pipeline being built by multiple construction contractors, all happens at the same time.
It’s no easy task to make timely decisions that fix issues before they become big problems.
“There’s a common saying in the pipeline industry: ‘you can bury your mistakes’,” says Cox. “But any defects could result in major incidents much later in the life of a pipeline. It’s a big challenge to manage different construction contractors, some of which have more advanced processes and systems than others. And you need to keep tabs on what’s happening and where it’s happening across work fronts spread over 20 or 30 or even 40 kilometers.“This gets more difficult when you’re working next to landowners who will become neighbors for the next 30 years over the life of the asset. You have to get things right the first time to maintain a social license to operate.”
The problem with pipeline projects
Cox is no stranger to pipeline projects, with involvement in thousands of kilometers of pipelines all over the world. But when asked what would have made these projects easier, he’s quick to respond.
“When you’re building a pipeline, you want to see what’s happening, and you want to know whether the information is up to date.”
So, why is this still difficult?
“When a pipeline is being constructed, inspectors regularly visit different sites to assess progress. They are out inspecting all day, get back to their hotel or camp in the evening and fill out their daily forms manually for another couple of hours. Then they send out those forms, with the data manually being entered into a central database. That data is then summarized and used to make critical decisions. It’s an ongoing and timely process, and it’s prone to human error.
“Sometimes, not even the company managing the construction is across everything that is happening in the field. And you can lose millions of dollars by missing an issue for a couple of days because you’re relying on old or inaccurate information that doesn’t show the bigger picture.”
Can technology lend an extra set of eyes?
Managers tend to rely on summary reports and often don’t have time or easy access to the volume of data coming in. Try as we might, we’re only as good as the information we have access to. And this leaves the door open to missed targets for cost, schedule and quality.
However, we can make better decisions when up-to-date information is available at our fingertips.
Cox reflects on the spark of an idea to provide it.
“Previous pipeline projects had showed us that timely information is paramount. This made for another realization: the technology to capture and present this information in one place wasn’t as difficult as it seemed. We had separate systems for each stage of designing and constructing pipelines. We just needed to mesh these systems together and present the information in a useful way.
“That was the trigger to start building our OmniSight™ tool. And this technology has since formed the basis for smarter and timely decisions that are now enabling pipeline projects to be delivered on time and to budget.”
How OmniSight works
“OmniSight gets rid of the inefficiencies and inaccuracies that exist when forms have to be filled out manually and then entered into a central database days later,” explains Cox.
“Instead of creating reports at the end of the day, inspectors use a tablet form to complete a digital report on the spot. This information is instantly uploaded and accessible through the OmniSight system. And if the inspector identifies an issue, the system generates additional questions to build a more accurate picture of what’s happening.
“It’s geographic information system (GIS) based, so construction managers can see the entire environment on a map with all the other layers turned on. It gives the exact progress through a visual picture of the construction, so you can immediately see progress across the entire work front. And the information is up to date. It’s not what we think is happening. It’s what’s really happening.”
Winning the cost battle
A sense of control returns when the work front is visible in a single view, but how does it help deliver better outcomes for pipeline projects?
“It gives a degree of certainty we weren’t able to get before,” says Cox. “OmniSight provides a comparison of where the project should be, and where it actually is. Our customers are always focused on total installed cost for a given pipeline project, and they need to be able to pick up cost and schedule issues as early as possible during construction.
“This also means that during the construction process, they know the percentage completion of the pipeline or facility every week. That’s not just what the contractor is telling them, but the true percentage rolled up into an accurate earned value used to assess contractor invoices. This allows them make low-cost adjustments to hit the deadline and avoid going over budget.”
The benefits can also flow to offices many thousands of miles from the trenches.
“It’s an equally valuable tool for senior management,” says Cox. “One of our customers in the US had a portfolio of pipeline projects and the senior executive leadership wanted an overall picture of their status. We rolled that up into a dashboard so that they could see it live. It gave a real-time view they hadn’t seen before, and they loved it! It probably saved a few phone calls back and forth, too,” Cox laughs.
The future of OmniSight
Cox is enthusiastic about this shift toward certainty; something that’s been all too hard to find across scores of pipeline projects in the past.
“Delivering projects on time and on budget has been a real challenge in this industry, and it’s worth every effort to overcome the difficulties of putting a pipeline in the ground. You would think it’s straightforward. However, being in total control of your destiny isn’t going to happen without the real-time knowledge OmniSight delivers. You can see the confidence that comes from certainty that the asset will be ready on time and earning revenue when it’s meant to be.
“That’s what matters most to our customers.”