July 2018, Vol. 245, No. 7


Mobile Technology Takes Pipeline Data to the Cloud

By Lance Fugate, Vice President of Operations, Enmapp Pipeline Data

One of the biggest challenges facing the construction of pipeline projects is that they operate in a dynamic, complex environment where external bottlenecks and stakeholders can introduce excessive delays and costs.

To meet those changes, contractors and pipeline managers are increasingly being asked for data to support regulatory compliance, cost management, safety and maintenance objectives — the meat and potatoes of the industry.

Such data is fast becoming what Forbes magazine called “the oil of the digital era” — there to be used in new ways to generate products and services in fast-growing markets that can be only peripherally aligned with pipeline building itself.

Increased information offers new ways to evaluate contractors, determine the advantage one  pipeline route over another, or provide metrics to monitor the pipeline construction itself.

For decades, collecting, evaluating and maintaining data has been done with old-school surveying devices, pencil-and-paper, cumbersome and error-generating transcription techniques and space-eating storage facilities. The process makes data acquisition expensive.

But does it have to be? Thanks to smartphones, tablets and the cloud, some pipeline services companies are saying that the answer is “no.” They are using applications that leverage a Global Network Services Solution (GNSS) receiver tethered by Bluetooth to a smartphone, which enables the collection of sub-meter accurate pipeline data in the field to automatically update databases over-the-air.

Taking this field data concept a step further, Enmapp built a mobile application using a platform called TerraGo Magic. This approach allows customization of field data collection software for customers without writing a single line of code.

This platform allows apps to be designed that are tailored to a customer, a pipeline or even a project. All the forms, reports and workflows can be built without the time or expense of software development and without the limitations of a commercial data collector app.  The customer gets a data package with all the information, fields, photos and videos needed.

The data package is transmitted digitally to the cloud or directly to headquarters. There data can be analyzed and evaluated, used to monitor construction progress or maintenance needs, extracted for regulatory reports.

Responsibility for welds, status and incident reports, and quality and performance evaluation metrics can be integrated into a narrative as the pipeline is built. Repair rates on welds and other inspectors’ findings can be woven into that narrative in real time, with trends established and addressed before their damage is compounded. 

If there is an issue – a faulty weld, a pipeline fissure that becomes an oil leak – responsibility can be tracked. Quality evaluations are quantified, and regulatory bodies’ queries can be addressed with easily retrievable digital facts, not buried paper. 

Data becomes Big Data, collected with smartphones or tablet computers to keep costs down – turning pen-and-paper techniques into the dinosaurs that formed the petroleum in the first place. Construction can be monitored in real or near real-time, and mistakes can be remedied as they occur. Duplicated effort, often an issue on long pipeline projects, is eliminated before it can occur. Decisions can be made quickly. Downtime can be reduced or eliminated completely. So can the expense of dispatching crews to re-survey areas in which data is incomplete. 

The customer – in this case, the pipeline contractor and those who keep watchful eyes over it – gains some control over the cost of this data acquisition, as well as what can be done with its products. Return on investment can be measured quickly.

Other stakeholders, such as government regulatory agencies and certified weld and coding inspectors, many of which also use old-fashioned methods to do their jobs, can be part of the digital migration, gaining speed and cutting expense in checking data and analyzing reports. Risk management firms can enjoy those same advantages, determining and monitoring their exposure as it evolves. Environmentalists gain new metrics in ascertaining impact on nature.

Also of note, field workers do much of the heavy lifting in collecting the data with smartphones or tablet computers, becoming empowered when they add data collection to their resumes.

So what’s holding back the customized field data collection software revolution? In essence, there are a handful of issues to overcome:

  • The pipeline industry’s reluctance to embrace new methods in favor of legacy procedures. Part of that reluctance is an unwillingness to change what has been demonstrated to work “good enough.” Another part is the fear of new technology. Ironically, that fear isn’t shared by the field force, which by and large is comfortable with new smartphone- and tablet-based tools. Bringing in a consultant to smooth over transition to new technology is a way of coping.
  • The industry is wary of investing in the IT infrastructure. The reality of digital data collection is that companies traditionally had to invest in an enterprise Geographic Information System (GIS) to server as the back-end platform, as well as GIS consultants to build custom solutions and GIS experts to manage it over time. With cloud-based mobile applications, there is no infrastructure and a developer isn’t needed to customize the applications.
  • There is a reluctance among many pipeline services companies to disturb the status quo. They see ceding data collection to customers as cutting their business’ throats.

Other companies, though, see the inevitability of digital data collection as part of the future of pipeline construction, and are modifying business models to embrace it.

Progressive pipeline services companies should view their value as being enhanced by digital transformation programs, not lessened by them. Going digital allows a company to leverage its expertise and unlock greater value with traceable, verifiable and intelligent data analytics.

By using mobile apps like Enmapp Pipeline we have seen both the clear reduction of customer data collection costs and the dramatic increase in data value.  And unlike “old school” methods, digital field data collection is scalable for the most challenging projects.

As an example of the need for digital data collection, consider that over $20 billion worth of pipeline projects, in various stages of planning, all of which will use multiple prime contractors with diverse data collection and quality management systems and impact hundreds of will be effecting extremely diverse and sensitive environmental areas. A host of risk management stakeholders have a lot at stake in these projects and are going to want data-filled reports that address concerns with hard facts.

Picture all the trucks on all the routes of all those projects, with four out of five filling out three-part forms by hand to build the mountain of paper to satisfy all of those customers. The figure, by the way, accurately describes the number of companies still doing old school data collection. Then add all the back office time involved in transcription and data entry of all those forms. 

And, of course, the thousands of illegible fields needing to be re-entered, along with the data errors that require countless repeat visits and inspections. Then, the printing of volumes of reports to satisfy stakeholders in all the agencies, businesses and communities.

Now instead, picture all the workers at the construction sites capturing photos and forms with a tap on their smart phones, instantly available for on-demand reports by any stakeholder.

The mobile digital revolution has arrived, and the time for the oil pipeline industry to join it has come. Game-changing tools are there. So is the workforce with the skills to use it. All that remains is for our industry to let go of its paper past and embrace a better, digital future. P&GJ

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