Oil Rigs are Being Taken Over by Robots

The job of stringing together heavy, dirty pipes on oil drillship have been made easy by a robot. And this is not the only way robots are being used in the oil industry.

The task of connecting hundreds of segments of drill pipe as they’re shoved through miles of ocean water and oil-bearing rock, a repetitive and dangerous task, has been automated by the Iron Roughneck which was made by National OIlwell Varco Inc.

According to Mark Rodgers, a worker who is engaged in such joining of pipes on an oil drillship in the Gulf of Mexico, says that the machine has also cut to two from three the need for roustabout. He was laid off by Transocean Ltd and now repairs appliances.

“I’d love to go back offshore,” he says. however it would seem that the odds are against him.

Anywhere from a third to half of the employees laid off may never come back to the oil industry as it begins to climb out of a collapse that took 440,000 jobs. The need for field hands is being reduced by a combination of increased automation and more efficient drilling rigs. From auto manufacturing to food and clothing makers, automation has revolutionized many industries. Dennis Yang, chief executive officer of Udemy, a company in San Francisco that trains workers whose careers were derailed by advanced machinery says that energy companies, which rely on large, complex equipment for drilling and maintaining oil wells, are particularly well-positioned to benefit.

“It used to be you had a toolbox full of wrenches and tubing benders,” says Donald McLain, chairman of the industrial-programs department at Victoria College in south Texas. “Now your main tool is a laptop.” McLain, who worked as a rig hand for 25 years, is helping to retrain laid-off oil workers for more technical jobs.

James West, an analyst at investment bank Evercore ISI says: “We got fat and bloated” as he adds that dring the boom, companies were too busy pumping oil and gas to worry about head count. time to rethink the mix of human labor and automated machinery in the oil fields were given to executives during the two-and-a-half-year downturn, he says.

However companies are proceeding cautiously in the current political climate. Near some of the most dangerous tasks, lower labor costs and fewer workers would be the result of more robotic drilling. But West says that simply as a way to be more competitive around the world, oil companies probably will frame their cost-cutting technologies.

“They’ll more likely brag about the automation rather than these head counts,” West says. “It’s kind of dangerous to talk about jobs in the Trump administration.”

Art Soucy, president of global products and technology for Baker Hughes said after the world’s four largest oil-service companies spent $3.12 billion in severance costs during the past two years, the industry is acutely aware of the heavy reliance on manpower.

Janette Marx, chief operating officer of Airswift, an oilfield recruiter said that as the oil industry recovers, automation-related jobs for software specialists and data technicians are in demand as the impact of technology extends well beyond the wellhead.

“To me, it’s not just about automating the rig, it’s about automating everything upstream of the rig,” says Ahmed Hashmi, head of upstream technology for BP PLC. “The biggest thing will be the systems.”

(Adapted from Bloomberg)



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