Additional challenges for pipeline operators

The uncertain nature of the COVID-19 pandemic causes some additional challenges for pipeline operators. At the start, business continuity was the priority for everyone and emergency response plans ensured that critical operations could continue despite disruptions.

Although in some areas normal business is starting to resume, the pandemic is still a global crisis and the economic effects will be felt for years. The challenges for pipeline operators have come thick and fast, with many being expected to still deliver the same levels of service as before the pandemic. Here we look at the big five challenges and why pipeline simulation is a great tool to help overcome them. Helping to not only ensure business continuity, but also optimize operations going forwards.

We will cover:

  1. Managing with reduced headcounts
  2. Assisting the workforce when off-field and working remotely
  3. Coping with supply chain challenges
  4. Ensuring the safety of the pipelines
  5. Effectively training new (and existing) pipeline operators

COVID big 5 challenges graphic

1. Managing with reduced headcounts

COVID-19 has left many with reduced operations teams. Companies were forced to place some pipeline engineers and controllers on job retention schemes or to make job cuts all together. Making cuts to OPEX was important for many to be able to survive financially.  

Despite the knock-on effect of this in reduced headcounts, pipeline operators have been expected to deliver the same pre-pandemic services with smaller teams. This also places added pressure on pipeline safety procedures.  

Pipeline simulation tools such as Atmos Simulation (SIM) Suite can be used as a powerful tool to aid decision making. Helping pipeline operators to make informed decisions faster and reduce the time taken to resolve arising situations. All while providing an extra pair of eyes overlooking the state of the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) or distributed control systems (DCS).

Time-consuming, manual tasks can also be automated. Empowering pipeline operators to dedicate their time to higher value tasks without cutting corners or compromising the safety of the pipeline. Helping to optimize the efficiency of the pipeline operations and allocate resource wisely.

2. Assisting workforce when off-field and working remotely

COVID-19 caused the biggest working from home experiment ever. Particularly smaller pipeline operators were affected and needed to setup for control room staff to work from home in the height of the pandemic. This poses many challenges like maintaining vigilance during the 12-hour shift, ensuring tasks and shift handovers are performed in a compliant manner and supporting pipeline safety. This challenge is made even more difficult when you’re used to monitoring several large screens in a control room and reduced to a laptop at home with broadband internet connection.

When working from home is the only option, a pipeline simulator can assist with overcoming these challenges. Helping pipeline operators interpret conflicting information from the SCADA or DCS systems. Using the look-ahead capability to predict the outcome of scenarios that haven’t happened yet also means those working from home can perform proactively rather than reactively to unfolding situations.

The nature of the pandemic means it’s uncertain if and when pipeline operators will need to work remotely again. It’s reassuring to know how pipeline simulation can support vigilance while working remotely.

3. Coping with supply chain challenges

In times of crisis like COVID-19, there’s always a change in buying behavior. This places pressure on supply chains if there is an unexpected increase in demand. Panic buying has been a common theme that’s run throughout the pandemic. It’s important to keep a close eye on the situation and consider how this sudden demand increase could impact the operation of the pipeline.

A pipeline simulator can help pipeline operators to respond effectively to supply and demand shifts. It can be used as a tool to help understand the existing pipeline infrastructure so that it’s known how the pipeline will react to changing conditions.

Using predictive modeling means that you can look at the behavior of the pipeline in a variety of future scenarios. Alarms can then be configured to set thresholds that determine if safe operating conditions would be violated.

4. Ensuring the safety of the pipelines

With a limited headcount and in some cases pipeline operators working remotely, ensuring the safety of the pipeline became paramount. Pipeline simulation helps users operate safely despite resource restrictions by comparing accurate real-time data.

Instrumentation analysis is just one of the key benefits of Atmos SIM. This is achieved by comparing real-time data acquired from field instrumentation with the calculated results returned from the simulated pipeline model. When a difference is returned, Atmos SIM can determine if the field instrumentation has developed a fault. An example of this is shown below.

Real example of a trend showing how Atmos SIM picks up instrumentation faults

Operating with limited resource means it’s not always been possible over the course of the pandemic to dispatch engineer teams immediately or ensuring the correct equipment is available to complete repairs. Pipeline simulation enables users to integrate the simulated values into the SCADA or DCS and override them in human-machine interface (HMI) displays. This means that operations teams can continue to safely operate without the need to constantly note which values are unreliable.

5. Effectively training new (and existing) pipeline operators

COVID-19 was initially a big constraint on the job market globally, with people who’d planned to change jobs putting it off in 2020 due to the main concern of job security. Although job retention schemes were put in place in some countries, the full effect of the impact the pandemic has had on the job market is only beginning to be realized.

The reduction of headcounts, coupled with the backlog of non-essential projects put on the backburner during the height of COVID-19 means that as the effects of the pandemic subside, the industry is going to be in dire need of pipeline engineers and controllers. The US Bureau of Labor Statistic predicts that 140,000 new engineering jobs will become available by 2026 in the US alone*. Effective training programs will become crucial as this gap is filled.

Pipeline simulators can be used to adequately train pipeline controllers so that they are able to recognize and take appropriate actions to abnormal operating conditions. Atmos Trainer combines the Atmos SIM hydraulic simulator with a SCADA user interface and a sophisticated operator scoring and qualification module to effectively train and test pipeline controllers for gas or liquid pipelines. This is a high quality but cost-effective way to train new pipeline controllers, helping them to understand the pipeline environment quickly.

COVID-19 has also placed a delay on climate change strategies. Now that the world is starting to open, the move to green energy is a key area of change. The transition from natural gas to hydrogen is at the forefront of this and pipeline simulation will play a key role in training both new and existing pipeline controllers to help prepare them for this change.

A capable and reliable system for challenging times

Challenging times as seen with COVID-19 has demonstrated how crucial it is to have a tool like Atmos SIM. Helping to provide operators with an extra pair of eyes and further insight into the integrity of the pipeline.

The data pipeline simulation provides not only helps to aid decision-making, but to make the pipeline run more efficiently and even automate manual tasks. Going forward, it’s going to become an essential part of the augmented workforce, where people work in harmony with machines.

Learn more about pipeline simulation

If you’d like to learn more about pipeline simulation, and in particular our solution Atmos SIM, why not download the technical paper: using pipeline simulation to overcome operational challenges caused by COVID-19.



Categories: Atmos product , Best practice advice

By: Glen Tyson
Date: 10 December 2021