Though National Instruments (NI) takes some pride in the diversity of the markets it serves—no single industry accounts for more than 15 percent of its overall business, which offers stability when one industry takes a hit—oil and gas remains an important industry for the company, with more than 35,000 customers a year. At the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) earlier this month in Houston, NI was showing off some of its latest technology advances most relevant to oil and gas customers.
Certainly, drastically lower oil prices have been difficult for the industry over the past few years. But the slump has also afforded some companies the time they need to retool their fleets and think about innovating. “When prices are good, those trucks are being used,” commented Brett Burger, principal marketing manager for NI. “When things slow down a bit, there’s more time for technology upgrades.”
Two key capabilities always important to oil and gas—or any other industry—are driving production efficiency and improving uptime. To demonstrate recent innovations for driving production efficiency, NI turns to a customer that has become a mainstay in its OTC booth, Lime Instruments, which designs hydraulic pressure pumping controllers on some of NI’s hardware. “NI technology is used to help automate a lot of those big, nasty processes,” Burger said. “Humans could use help to do better.”
Machine learning was much talked about at OTC this year, and it’s a growing part of the discussion for improving uptime. There’s an increasing amount of attention being given to not only feeding asset health data from machines to human experts, but also feeding that data into computer-based machine learning, Burger said, noting as an example of the technology the type of intelligent learning that National Oilwell Varco (NOV) is doing with top drives.
“There’s a lot of interest in [machine learning], along with some early deployments,” Burger said. “But there’s still a lot of heavy lifting involved.”
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) were also hot commodities at OTC this year, and this was another area where NI was showing off what could be coming as the technology matures. As an example of the continuous improvements being done on asset health monitoring, VR has been added to the smart pump NI has been demonstrating along with several other vendors, including Flowserve, PTC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and OSIsoft.
With all the talk of late about edge devices within the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), one thing to keep in mind is just how harsh that edge environment often is in the oil and gas industry. In past OTC displays, NI has shown off just how rugged its CompactRIO industrial controller is, shaking and baking it for visitors. But this year, NI demonstrated its continued innovation on its rugged line of processor- and sensor-based controllers, Burger said.
“The vast majority of CompactRIO customers, as rugged as it is, still put it in an enclosure,” he said. “But we have some customers that don’t want that box.”
Released near the end of last year, the IC-3173 industrial controller is NI’s first IP67-rated controller, able to operate in the presence of dust and water in the kinds of harsh environments common in the industry. Also released late last year is the FieldDAQ—NI’s most rugged DAQ device to date. Also rated to IP67 standards, it can operate in -40 to 85 °C environments and can sustain 100 g shock and 10 g vibration. That shock rating is twice what most of NI’s devices can sustain, Burger noted.
“We’re pretty excited about these products—not just because of their ruggedness, but also because we’re starting to leverage Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN),” he said. “All the measurements between the FieldDAQ units will be synchronized using TSN capabilities. And you don’t need an external synchronization trigger or synchronization cable to do that.” This is important in oil and gas environments, where it’s best to minimize wiring.
Many of these innovations will be on display at NIWeek this week in Austin, Texas. In fact, NI has created a 2,000-sq-ft space on the show floor that recreates the Industrial IoT Lab that NI opened early last year. For one of its IIoT technology demos, NI, HPE, PTC and Flowserve have assembled the pump health monitoring system along with Microsoft HoloLens to improve asset health visibility.
Another section is all about the platform technology, Burger noted. “People can see the FieldDAQ, industrial controller, CompactRIO controllers—and how they work with TSN technology,” he said, adding that visitors will be able to pick up and play with the equipment in the “petting zoo.” Visitors will also be able to get a look at the shake-and-bake demo of the rugged controllers.