February 2023, Vol. 250, No. 2


How Wearables Re-Energize Digital Transformation

By Sanjay Jhawar, Co-Founder, RealWear 

(P&GJ) — With oil prices reaching the highest levels in six years, the oil and gas industry is experiencing a windfall. At the same time, geopolitical tensions and bans on imports from Russia have accelerated the move away from oil toward cleaner energy.

Together, these developments have created an opportunity – and increased urgency – for oil and gas leaders to invest in the technology that will enable them to work more safely, smartly and productively – as well as extract oil and gas more efficiently and with less emissions, both now and in the future.  

While digital transformation in oil and gas has lagged behind that in other industries because the technology used elsewhere hasn’t been a good fit in a culture known for a heavy focus on safety, innovations in assisted reality and industrial wearable solutions and better workflow applications now present a new promising opportunity to re-energize digitalization.  

 A growing number of industry leaders are already embracing extended reality (XR) technologies, which include:  

  • Virtual reality: The user has no direct view of the world around them, for example, running a 3-D simulation of what an oil rig or refining location will look like to familiarize the worker with safety hazards they will encounter in the field.  
  • Mixed reality: The user has some ability to see through the device to the real world, with some digital elements overlaid, for example helping a worker in a safe environment service depot or training facility learn how to repair a pump or valve.  
  • Assisted reality: The user has full situational awareness, allowing them to see and hear any hazards around them. Assisted reality devices provide contextual information below the user’s line of site but are not intended to provide a fully immersive experience, which could distract users working in potentially hazardous conditions.  

Among XR technologies, assisted reality is scaling to a greater extent in the oil and gas industry because it’s built for scale and compatible with legacy backend systems. Maersk Drilling, for example, turned to assisted reality wearables to perform a Special Periodic Survey (SPS) remotely on its harsh-environment jack-up rig Maersk Resolute when COVID-19 hit, restricting travel by its commissioning team. One of Honeywell’s divisions, Honeywell Process Solutions, has also turned to assisted reality to enable a virtual version of its acceptance testing process. 

Among other uses already delivering results for the oil and gas industry:  

Remote expert assistance: Leaders are already using assisted reality wearables to connect the global workforce and enable frontline workers to get assistance from an expert remotely. Shell, for example, has deployed assisted reality devices in a dozen countries. For instance, if equipment needs maintenance, a worker can get real-time assistance via a video call, allowing an expert to essentially see through the eyes of the onsite worker and offer over-the-shoulder assistance. 

Alternate methods of collaboration: Many organizations halted employee travel altogether during the early months of the pandemic and assisted reality wearables helped bring teams together virtually – so successfully in many cases that they have continued to do so long after travel restrictions were lifted, saving travel budgets and employees’ time. 

As vice president of ExxonMobil’s Upstream Integrated Solutions Company, Raymond Jones puts it, “There is no substitute for in-person collaboration to support business-critical activities, but assisted reality technology helps us collaborate with our teams at the workplace in situations when meeting in person isn’t possible or the best answer.” 

Industry compliance: With oil and gas companies subject to extensive regulations to protect the environment and ensure the safety of the workforce and the communities they operate in; compliance is an important part of doing business. With assisted reality wearables, technicians can capture photos and videos as work is done, then review and archive them at shift change. They can also troubleshoot work issues and perform live inspections remotely, sending hands-free, two-way video, as supervisors watch on a laptop. 

Asset management: With a $3.4 trillion asset base at stake, the industry can’t afford to downplay asset management and maintenance. Consider the case of a refinery: Assisted reality wearables can be used to give mechanical technicians step-by-step instructions to perform maintenance and repairs; streamline work orders and optimize processes for process technicians; and empower job planners by digitalizing error-prone, manual processes associated with creating jobs and assigning work orders.  

Remote expert assistance in particular played a pivotal role in helping oil and gas leaders get through the pandemic; if your company has already embraced this use case with assisted realities, you are ideally positioned to take the next step, looking at more advanced use cases like guided work instructions, digital twins or AI-based search capabilities to hedge against an uncertain future. 

If you haven’t yet done so, now is the time to start. What is certain is that there is significant change ahead and assisted reality wearables can help companies respond more nimbly and adaptably.  

Consider everything that needs to happen with regards to infrastructure, capabilities and digital control systems as a company moves from refined oil to liquefied natural gas.  

The company will need to build a new physical plant, quickly, as well as reconfigure its supply chain. Its employees will need to work differently, which means it will need to develop new work instructions as well as equip workers with new skill sets.  

Leaders will also need to consider how they can work more efficiently to reduce leaks and downtime, improving costs as well as the company’s environmental footprint. Assisted reality wearables can enable all of this, and more.  

With industry margins healthy, now is the time to invest in the technology to prepare for a future that’s efficient, productive and greener. Here’s what you need to keep in mind to successfully deploy assisted reality devices across the organization.  

  • Choose tools that fit your safety culture: Oil and gas is rightfully known for its emphasis on safety; even intrinsically safe devices such as mobile phones or tablets can pose hazards in some environments. Choose assisted reality devices that are going to be a good fit for how your safety culture currently operates – and the regulations to which it is subject.  
  • Address IT security from the start from the ground up. Best-in-class assisted-reality solutions are now fully supported by the latest device and policy management and systems required by your IT department. 
  • Start small: Integration will take sustained effort; your IT landscape is unique, and deploying assisted reality devices will require customization, integration and management. Begin with a single use case and give it the appropriate governance and resource support.  

Manage change: Change is difficult, which means that adoption must be approached intentionally. Identify the people within your organization who tend to be most receptive to new technology, and pilot assisted reality wearables with them first. They can then serve as champions who help you build acceptance for change across the organization.  

Scenario planning has been entrenched in the oil and gas industry for more than 50 years now, in large part due to the volatility of the industry. With scenario planning, the goal is not to decide on the most probable future and plan for it. 

Rather it’s to make strategic decisions that will provide optionality in all plausible futures and provide greater reaction time to the emergence of a specific scenario. 

One of the benefits of assisted reality wearables is that they are virtually future-proof.  

They can be updated or integrated with third-party platforms as well as business-critical software, and advances in device management open up new use cases, including leveraging metadata to gain insights and patterns of usage across apps, for example, which parts of the plant require the most attention.  

Not long ago, the industry was anticipating an orderly transition from fossil fuels to renewables, with a focus on managing that shift in a way that was good for companies as well as the environment.  

Today, however, the transition is moving at lightning speed. As companies increase investments in carbon-based energy, there’s a growing need to diversify the source of those energy feeds in order to enable a much more flexible, cleaner energy system.  

By investing now in the XR technologies to enable and empower the tools, people and systems you’ll need to make that vision a reality, you can make your business more robust and position it to survive and thrive in the next downturn.  

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