May 2024
SPECIAL FOCUS- Well completion technology

Dawn of a new day in completions

A unique collaborative approach to completions management demonstrates how working from a different perspective can optimize operational efficiency and improve well economics.
Allen Crum / NexTier Ben Dickinson (1) / NexTier

In an industry constantly challenged by regulatory pressure, price volatility and skilled worker shortages, creating value across exploration and production operations is an imperative. At the same time, advancements in equipment and cloud-based technologies are unlocking opportunities that call for a new approach to drive efficiencies and ensure economic value. A primary target for this new way of working is the well completions segment, given it comprises a significant portion of a well’s manufacturing cycle and costs.  

Completion technologies are rapidly advancing—but so, too, are operator expectations. Not long ago, delivering equipment with high-volume pumping capability and low emissions was the primary goal. Today, providing high-performing, low-emissions equipment is an expectation in an evolving operational landscape that demands greater agility, repeatability and collaboration. To be competitive, service providers must deliver across the board with quality services, technologies and equipment to provide consistency and efficiency across operations. 

Tomorrow’s winning strategy will deliver value by de-risking operations, ensuring operator-service provider collaboration, optimizing workflows, enhancing operational transparency and streamlining completions programs. New technologies also will allow operators to attain full visibility across the manufacturing cycle of the well during the completions process.  

New playing field. Historically, operators have contracted service providers, based primarily on cost and equipment capability and reliability. While equipment performance remains essential, operators now are looking to drive additional value through consistency in wellsite performance, as well as agility across activity cycles. Operators are expecting service companies to further collaborate and resolve challenges to improve operations efficiency, completions effectiveness and well productivity. 

The goal is unchanged—to achieve consistent and reliable operations while managing workforce costs and maintaining capital discipline.  Amid today's complex and digitized worksites, embracing innovative approaches is key to boosting performance and achieving superior results. Every completion’s well site employs multiple vendors, with a host of equipment and controls that complicate execution. Crews are tasked with monitoring and controlling thousands of inputs and sensors to manage the equipment, introducing a number of operational variables that make it complex to coordinate operations in a way that allows repeatability.  

Another significant issue that is unique to completions programs is that the equipment, particularly frac pumps and blending equipment, is being pushed to higher limits, based on stimulation design parameters, such as operating at higher horsepower-hours and pumping more proppant than ever before, Fig. 1. These intense demands require frequent and even daily maintenance, which adds to costs.  

Fig. 1. Frac intensity has steadily risen throughout the shale era, reaching new peaks in hydraulic horsepower-hours and proppant usage per well.

Leading service companies are focused on reliability through preventive equipment health monitoring to reduce maintenance costs and extend the life of capitalized equipment.  Irrespective of equipment type, remote monitoring processes have proven more effective in reducing downtime and achieving operational consistency than traditional, field-based monitoring programs. In addition, real-time data can be analyzed with a variety of algorithms that identify anomalies to detect likely mechanical failures before they occur. To further increase reliability, especially for components subject to more wear and tear, electric-driven equipment can be utilized to lower maintenance requirements during service life. That said, electric equipment requires a greater up-front capital investment and often a long lead time.  

On the positive side, next-generation equipment is being designed with more sophisticated control systems and a wider base-layer of sensor data. The significant volume of data this equipment produces, however, presents its own challenge. As more of this equipment is deployed in the field, data standardization is increasingly key in delivering consistent operations. This creates an opportunity for data-focused service companies to collaborate with operators in utilizing new information to help improve well performance. 

Historically, the industry has tackled challenges by focusing on specific issues, leading to numerous targeted solutions; however, there's growing momentum toward adopting a holistic perspective to address the broader challenges comprehensively rather than piecemeal. This new comprehensive approach is proving effective in addressing the complex issues in today’s completions environment.  

A new dawn. Digitalization and innovative technologies are changing the face of operations and providing new opportunities for operators to achieve the lowest cost per lateral foot, while reducing their environmental footprint. We at NexTier canvassed our customers to better understand their operational complexities and needs in the increasingly dynamic industry landscape. One of the biggest concerns that surfaced, surprisingly, had nothing to do with work on a given well site. The majority of operators shared concerns about maximizing value from historically less-productive acreage, as the shale cycle matures and they move on from Tier 1 acreage to Tier 2 and Tier 3.  

Delivering on those demands requires service providers to adopt a whole new mindset that looks to enhance visibility and collaboration to maximize well performance. At NexTier, we call this our proprietary EOS strategy, Fig. 2. This approach comprises three interrelated functions: (1) de-risking the well site through integration and automation utilizing next-generation equipment to enable reliable and autonomous operations; (2) connecting and automating all front-end to back-office processes with streamlined digital workflows, driving uniformity of service delivery; and (3) partnering to complete a better well by fully digitizing and integrating completions from reservoir to pump, providing customers with full data visibility. 

Fig. 2. The EOS strategy integrates advanced digital workflows and optimized engineering solutions to increase efficiency in completions operations and support, creating a better well.

Taking a three-pronged approach. The first function of our approach revolves around empowerment—for the operator, crews and remote teams. This function is focused on de-risking the wellsite. In part, this means removing people from the red zone and high-risk activities by integrating automated operations, using next-generation equipment. In addition to expanding the amount of equipment automation, empowerment also includes increasing remote operations capabilities and creating multi-skilled, integrated teams onsite to provide new services. The ability to capitalize on the expertise of skilled and experienced workers, while expanding their capability to enhance site operations, is particularly important in an industry that continues to be human resource-constrained. 

The second function, orchestration, concentrates on the sophisticated infrastructure required for digitalization. Orchestrating operations means connecting and automating front-end to back-office processes to optimize business workflows and enable consistent service delivery. By standardizing digital infrastructure for more consistency and transforming processes to simplify workflows, it is possible to extract greater value from field data and increase worker productivity. 

The third function enables partnerships between service companies and operators to simplify and streamline operations to maximize the opportunity for increased well performance. This requires a shift in perspective that places service providers, who are at the heart of completion activities, in the position of collaborators, acting in close cooperation with operators to develop customized solutions, as conditions at the wellsite evolve. This change in focus puts service providers in the co-pilot’s seat, where they can better integrate completions operations from reservoir to pump, giving operators full data visibility to support creating a better well. This strategy sets up building blocks for a new way of working in the field.  

Early success. Talking about change and conceptualizing solutions is one thing. Putting theory into practice is another. To demonstrate the practical value of the EOS strategy and illustrate how the functions underpin improvements in the field, our experts have implemented technology solutions in each of the functions to capture metrics to prove the efficacy of this approach. The three project and solutions examples below are being used in the field today: 

Empower: integration and automation. The completions landscape has changed over the past decade, with intensity at an all-time high and continuing to increase. Proppant per well is up three-fold over the past 10 years, while hydraulic horsepower-hours per well have increased nearly four-fold, Fig. 1. With rate and sand requirements increasing, so have efficiencies. There is also a continuous push to reduce HSE exposure on-site while improving sustainability. To address these challenges, we have deployed a fully electric, advanced blender capable of 200 bpm, which is nearly twice the rate of conventional blenders, Fig. 3. Because it is fully electric and deployed with a stand-alone electric liquid-additive skid, we can realize increased reliability and efficiencies, with a 75% increase in run time between maintenance cycles. It is also fully autonomous, enabling reduced personnel exposure at the wellsite.   

Fig. 3. Next-generation frac blenders use electric drive platforms, enhancing output capacity and extending maintenance intervals, compared to their hydraulic-driven predecessors.

Orchestrate: digital workflows. While preventative equipment health measures and programs are vital to increasing an equipment asset’s total life, efficiently managing traditional maintenance cycles and shop work velocity is equally as important to maintain a healthy base of active equipment. Bringing together both halves of this equation, we have built a customized maintenance solution platform that incorporates the entire equipment lifecycle, from new asset delivery to root-cause failure analysis. 

The system is designed to engage equipment operators directly via its mobile app, ensuring real-time maintenance activity data integration, Fig. 4. The design eliminates siloed information and streamlines communication processes from field to maintenance shop to remote center, driving improved understanding of total cost of ownership for all maintenance-related activities. This provides enhanced visibility to maintenance cycles and equipment demand, enabling accurate prioritization of maintenance activities, increasing asset velocity. 

Fig. 4. Digital operations engineers at NexTier's NexHub Digital Center in Houston, Texas, monitor real-time data from completions well sites throughout the U.S.

Streamline: surface to subsurface. Given increasing data volumes and diversity of formats, processing speed and data quality are critical. We have developed a comprehensive end-to-end data conversion and handling strategy. This strategy begins with the precise understanding of customer output requirements, which are then converted to established standards, securely stored within our cloud platform, and ultimately delivered back to the customer in their chosen format, protocol or standard. 

Leveraging advanced methodologies for real-time message streaming and application programming interface for data queries, this strategy ensures seamless, secure and efficient data flow. It also prioritizes the integrity and speed of data conversion and sets the stage for the application of next-generation analytics, models and AI capabilities. 

Throwing down the gauntlet. As the industry evolves, operators continue to seek solutions for improving operations consistency, completions effectiveness and well productivity. While these challenges are not an exhaustive or finite list, they establish a starting point. Our EOS strategy provides a framework for solving these and other industry challenges in the near- and long-term. 

Progress to date shows that embracing the latest digital and automation technologies and integrating across service lines can deliver greater operational consistency and efficiencies, enabling growth—even in a constrained market. A progressive, iterative process will eventually lead to the ability to visualize the entire hydraulic fracturing program to allow optimization from move-in, to rig-up, to rig-down. In time, the industry may be able to realize the ultimate goal of total automation.  

About the Authors
Allen Crum
Allen Crum is a seasoned professional with over 12 years of experience in U.S. shale completions. He has held roles in Engineering, Sales, Operations Management, and currently serves as vice president of Marketing & Communications for Patterson-UTI. Mr. Crum is committed to advancing the oilfield service industry through discovering and communicating value to internal and external stakeholders, alike.
Ben Dickinson (1)
Ben Dickinson (1) is a recognized leader in digital innovation within oilfield services, with over 13 years in the industry. He has an extensive background in land-based completion operations across U.S. shale basins and has held diverse roles from field engineering to operations management. In his current role at NexTier, Mr. Dickinson continues to spearhead efforts in digital and field operational effectiveness by guiding the company's future completion operations and advancing the frontier of digital integration in oilfield services.
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