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What is Digital Twin Technology - And How is it Used in Oil and Gas?

The idea of the ‘digital twin’ is catching on in the oil and gas industry. But what exactly is it, and how can it help?
This article appeared in Vol. 17, No. 4 - 2020

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What is Digital Twin Technology - And How is it Used in Oil and Gas?

A digital twin is a virtual representation of a physical object or process and it is important because it allows analysis of the data and systems involved in a new concept before they have even happened. It is a bridge between the physical and digital world. As described in Network World: “a digital twin is a computer program that takes real-world data about a physical object or system as inputs and produces as outputs predications or simulations of how that physical object or system will be affected by those inputs.”

  • ©. Elnur Amikishiyev /123RF.

It is the advent of cloud computing together with machine learning algorithms and rapid computing power that has made the idea of integrating all data together a practical reality. ‘Smart’ components containing sensors are used to gather data about the realtime status, working condition and position of a physical item, such as an engine – or an offshore drilling rig. The data is sent to a cloud-based system, which stores and analyzes it, combining it with and comparing it to other relevant data, so the twin simulates the physical object. Additional information integrated with the sensor data into the twin includes engineering content, such as diagrams and specifications, as well as financial considerations and uncertainties like weather, customer demand and supply disruption. Updating is constant and in real time, so fast decisions can be made using all available information.

The concept has caught on rapidly. Global research and advisory company Gartner identified digital twins as one of the most important trends in 2018, and it is now being used in a range of industries, from transport to manufacturing and healthcare.

Digital Twins in Oil and Gas

As an industry at the forefront of technology that already works with dynamic software models, oil and gas is also taking advantage of this concept, both in ensuring efficient and safe ongoing operations and in designing new techniques and facilities. Independent risk management and quality assurance expert DNV GL has undertaken research that suggests that in the oil and gas industry “cloud computing, advanced simulation, virtual system testing, virtual/augmented reality and machine learning will all progressively merge into full digital twins which combine data analytics, real-time and near-real-time data on installations, subsurface geology, and reservoirs”.

At the moment much of the oil industry work involving digital twins is being undertaken in the design of platforms and similar installations, with data on both existing and planned installations being constantly fed into the models. By using the cloud for storing datasets from all over the world, accurate and wide-ranging information is used to ensure a new design is both up to date and robustly tested. It requires a big investment in systems, sensors and analytics, but many companies believe it is worthwhile. 

The concept is also in use in operations, where it can help inform decision-making around optimizing production and maintenance by assessing how actions or events affect a virtual model of an asset. Since it is possible to model not only existing conditions but to also simulate extreme circumstances, the digital twin enables the operator to evaluate the most appropriate procedures to ensure both optimal production and personnel safety.

Oil Majors Creating Twins

Echo by Equinor

Equinor has developed a digital twin solution it calls Echo, which is used to access and visualize data from a range of its cloud-based databases. It is in place at ten assets so far, including the giant Johan Castberg field and the recent Mariner development.

  • Digitalization on the Mariner platform. © Equinor.

One of the more innovative aspects of digital twin technology that Equinor has been investigating is the use of the ‘digital field worker’, whereby everyone in the field can effectively bring the ‘office’ with them. Issues that previously had to be resolved onshore, with trips back to the office and many physical signatures, can now be carried out entirely in the field with digital tools. Equinor says that over 6,000 employees will adopt advanced digital solutions such as Echo during 2020, adding that “Everyone with access can enter the digital twin at any time, irrespective of whether they are onshore at the office, or offshore on the installation.”

APPEX by BP

BP is using its own digital twin system, APEX, a production optimization tool that has created a virtual copy of all the company’s production systems throughout the world. The company says APEX added 30,000 bopd to production in 2017 alone. It also considerably speeds up processes, with the company citing a systems optimization procedure that used to require about 24 hours now being done in a mere 20 minutes. 

APEX is also a surveillance tool, capable of spotting issues in the field before they have had a chance to affect production. It can be used to test ‘what if’ scenarios; by pairing the model with the actual data, irregularities can quickly be detected and different procedures can be simulated, tweaking various components to ensure the optimum solution. As BP says: “virtually verifying before refining the reality.” 

In 2017, Shell was the first operator to participate in a Joint Industry Project initiative focused on advancing the structural integrity management of offshore assets using digital twins. It continues to roll out the concept over its assets, most recently collaborating with Kongsberg to create a fully realized dynamic digital twin of the Nyhamna facility, a gas processing and export hub for various fields in the Norwegian North Sea, including Shell’s Ormen Lange project.

Embracing Digital Twin Technology in Oil and Gas

Digital twins are here to stay, throughout the E&P cycle, from subsurface modeling and the design of rigs to optimizing production, increasing safety and reducing field personnel, and in the installations required to process, refine and distribute hydrocarbons, continually evolving and maturing with the asset. The establishment of this sophisticated technology is complex and expensive but the evidence suggests the financial and practical rewards are worth the investment.

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