The heyday of $100 barrels of oil seems to be over, and oil and gas companies are feeling the pinch. Global oversupply led by US oil production means companies are constantly looking for ways to lower costs – and automation may be one of them. There are many ways that robotics and automation can be used in the oil and gas industry like assisting flexible riser engineers, some of which may put jobs at risk – but that may also create other opportunities for savvy people to jump on.
Cheap Black Gold
In 2018, US crude oil production is projected to reach 10 million barrels per day, breaking a record of 9.6 million barrels set in 1970. In tandem, the average US crude price is expected to reach $53.61 this year, with the $100/barrel rate a seemingly distant memory. This is revised slightly downward from the $55.10 that the US Energy Information Administration projected last month, meaning that crude suppliers might have to live with thinner profit margins. What better reason for companies to look to increased automation as a way to save money?
The idea of automation is always scary to people working in the manufacturing industry, as it raises the spectre of mass job losses – for example, no more than a third of the 440,000 jobs lost during the recent price crash may come back, especially because of bloated headcounts that occurred during the boom. But improved efficiencies from robotics don’t have to be all bad news, and there are often opportunities that can be created by their introduction as well as jobs lost from it. But what can robots be used for in the oil and gas sector?
Radical Robot Changes
First up, robots can be used for the same things they are being considered for in other sectors – like transportation, in which vehicles currently driven by humans could be replaced with automated cars and trucks. Such technology is tantalisingly close, as the recent buzz around self-driving cars has highlighted. But there are also uses specific to the oil and gas industry. For example, in Norway, an offshore company is testing robot drilling technology, which could lead to oil rigs that are almost fully automated.
Or, in a currently theoretical but plausible vision of the future, the entire nature of drilling could be reinvented using robotic swarm technology. Picture this: using behaviour modelled after ant colonies, millions of robots the size of a fist collectively perform a task that normally requires humans, like using a chemical process to break down ore and transport it back to base. And it’s not just drilling; every process that leads up to drilling is theoretically ripe for automation. Like in many sectors, the possibilities for using robots to replace human labour are endless.
Taking Our Jobs
So, if you’re an employee in the oil and gas industry, is it time to panic? Not quite yet. First, the overheads for these systems are very large, so it doesn’t make financial sense for most companies to invest in them until their cost-effectiveness is proven – and in the conservative oil and gas industry, that might take some time. But eventually, automated systems will likely take the place of many workers currently making a living in this way.
So how can you get ahead of the game? There are several options. These systems aren’t going to be able to run themselves (not for quite a while anyway) – they will need robot technicians, operators, people who know how to make them tick and can help use them to extract the maximum use out of the technology – and repair them when they go wrong. So, going back to school to learn how to be a robotics technician is one path.
But not everybody has the time or money for that. Fortunately, there are alternatives, such as online electronics training which allow you to save time and money while still learning a new skill. Retraining can be tough, but these courses generally offer good value for money and will allow you to be well placed for the robot revolution.
Despite the concern many people have for their jobs in oil and gas as the robots advance, all is not lost – humans will still be needed to program and maintain these machines for years to come.
Founder Dinis Guarda
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