Imaginations of equipment manufacturers should not be limited

When your mobile phone prompts you to upgrade your operating system, why is it that you almost always select “upgrade later?”

It is because you are busy and your current phone works fine. You quickly weigh the potential benefit of an upgrade versus the risk that something might go wrong, and at this moment, you do not have the time (or the interest) to drop what you are doing and fix something that you did not even know required an update.

The oil and gas industry has been hitting that “upgrade later” button for more than 50 years.

Think about the advancements we have seen with telephones, televisions, computers and many other technologies over the last few decades. These industries have taken quantum leaps forward. Think about the automotive industry, where brands rarely change, but the product representing that brand improves every year. Does a 2018 BMW-5 series look and act like a 5-series did 10 years ago?

Consider the rate of change in these industries, and then ponder why things have not gotten smaller, faster, cheaper, more efficient for pumps and for much of the infrastructure used in upstream environments, chemical plants and refineries. Ask yourself why pumps of all kinds continue to behave today in much the same way they did decades ago.

One explanation might be because the patents for many pumping technologies expired decades ago, and today, it can be difficult to differentiate between different manufacturers. Another explanation might be customer expectations, or the lack thereof. The adage “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” might be true, but that does not mean that things cannot get better.

In the market for pumps and pumping infrastructure, the customer’s conservatism should not limit the innovation and the imagination of equipment manufacturers.

Today, many of the constraints that pump manufacturers seek to overcome relate to footprint (size and weight) because real estate on a platform or floating production, storage and offloading (FPSO) vessel topside is crowded, and total costs on these vessels can exceed $40,000 per ton.

Imagine an FPSO using computer technology from the 1980’s. Where would it fit?

The entire industry deals with these constraints today because we hit the “upgrade later” button 20 years ago, and we have continued to drag our feet because “it’s not broke, so there’s no need to fix it…”

It is an odd problem when success traps innovation. Over the last 70 years, pump manufacturers have happily dealt with successful, sensitive and extremely conservative customers. One drawback to this success is that conservativism has stifled innovation.

Ironically, it took a substantial (and prolonged) downturn for operators to widely embrace innovation – and the results have been worth the risk. Today, it is time to unleash a new level of innovation that can benefit the entire industry.

Pump manufacturers need to see beyond the expectations of conservative customers and find new ways to improve the efficiency of their equipment in the industrial processes: new materials, higher power density, metal 3-D printing, augmented reality assisted system conception, energy efficient micro-controlled drives, closed loop electronic control, diagnostic and automation, wireless communication, IIoT or digital transformation and many other enhancements that we have not even thought of yet.

It is time to click on that “upgrade now” button, so that we can fix things today before they become constraints tomorrow.