Fit for the future: Realising a vision for a more resilient and sustainable subsea sector

By Simon Corrigan, Baker Hughes

Lightweight and modular designs deliver significant advantages over older, more monolithic systems
Lightweight and modular designs deliver significant advantages over older, more monolithic systems (illustration: Baker Hughes)

The energy sector is facing a convergence of challenges from all sides: environmental, public, political, financial, geological and pandemical. The list goes on. No sector is exempt from intense scrutiny. No site is immune to pressures to “do better”. No individual component can escape the downward pressure on costs and capex.

The possibility of returning to business as usual sounds increasingly unlikely. It’s more true to say the industry is going through a profound and extended period of change, both in the way of working but also the energy transition and pressures of rapid decarbonisation. These changes, paired with concerns of skills shortages and energy security is daunting – and occasionally existential.

How to respond? Rigidity in the face of these particular storms could see even the most solid-looking businesses uprooted. Instead, flexibility is needed to move with changing times without being overwhelmed by them. Every participant in our sector must learn how to adapt – and remain adaptable for the future.

At Baker Hughes, we believe that current conditions demand a wholesale review of every aspect of offshore operations. Our goal is to help operators find every viable opportunity to create technical certainty, executional certainty, and cost certainty, while lowering carbon emissions across the board.

Adaptable design
Our “fit for the future” approach brings together several key elements with a view to dramatically reducing the total cost of ownership and total carbon emissions. The first is the design of the equipment itself and ensuring that it meets the evolving needs of operators from the point of installation, right through to end of field life.

For subsea operations, it’s crucial that technology systems are developed and designed through an “expanded life of field” lens. This goes beyond traditional activities, such as tree cap, to incorporate carbon intensity into the calculation – this broadens the concept of sustainability to include the carbon impact alongside financial considerations.

There are opportunities for subsea systems to be re-engineered such that installation is quicker, more economic, and more efficient. For example, lightweight and modular designs – whether that’s lightweight compact trees, modular compact manifolds, composite flexibles, or connection systems – deliver significant advantages over older, more monolithic systems.

They are easier to build, transport, install, and connect, and once in place, they make normal operation smoother, and necessary interventions easier. Each of these stages makes its own contribution to reducing TCO and environmental impacts.

Adaptable structures
Core to more sustainable design is the development of more structured products where possible. The key is to make sure that the necessary flexibility to meet the demands of each unique field is retained. Once again, every aspect of the design has been considered – and re-considered – to establish where more standardisation is viable. For example, the Aptara MCP subsea system is the world’s first subsea multi-phase pump without a barrier fluid system. The standard pre-qualified 1 MW building blocks enable the MCP to be configured to different field requirements quickly and easily.

Even the logistics of transporting large components and the global availability of heavy-lift vessels has been taken into account. This enables the optimal combination of engineered-to-order (ETO), configured-to-order (CTO), made-to-order (MTO) and made-to-stock (MTS) production strategies – and consequently optimises the cost of production.

This focus on greater use of structured products is made possible by our engineers’ combined decades of experience and the ability to draw on the industry’s biggest installed base – and the vast reserves of data that accompany it. The bigger and more diverse that base, the greater the insight into the vagaries of well behaviour. That insight then informs every aspect of design.

Adaptable IT
That in turn is made possible by applying the power of digital technologies to almost every aspect of each stage. This is the third key aspect of developing fit for the future fields.

As noted above, the international subsea sector is, among other things, a vast repository of data. But it requires digitisation and advanced analytics to unlock its true value, for example by looking back over decades and using data from the biggest installed base from the industry can provide the leading edge in predicting field activity, optimising installations and accelerating time to production. Fortunately, institutional memory – often in the form of soon-to-retire experts – can be captured, digitised, analysed, questioned and made available to locations around the world. Failure to do so means a wasted opportunity for improvement.

This is not the only role for digital technologies. They enable more remote working, minimise human interventions, aid just-in-time maintenance and countless other functions that drive down the costs of subsea operation. Indeed, placing digital front and centre is essential for reducing non-productive time, lowering development costs per barrel, and maximising recovery rates throughout the life of a field. Again, this helps reduce the carbon intensity of the produced hydrocarbons.

There are opportunities for subsea systems to be re-engineered such that installation is quicker, more economic, and more efficient
There are opportunities for subsea systems to be re-engineered such that installation is quicker, more economic, and more efficient (illustration: Baker Hughes)

Adaptable relationships
It is also clear that re-engineered equipment, smart design and digital solutions need something more to address the major challenges the energy sector faces. The way that operators and suppliers work together merits scrutiny and its own form of re-engineering. It needs a different approach to partnerships: the fourth and final element for developing future-facing systems.

Traditionally, that relationship has been almost entirely transactional and sequential. In other words, the operator makes a request, the supplier asks questions, the operator answers, the supplier comes up with a solution – and an invoice. Operational and financial risk are allocated accordingly, and each party focuses on minimising their own risk exposure. Interests and motivations are not necessarily perfectly aligned.

In that back-and-forth, immense amounts of knowledge, potential – and time – is lost. It is hugely inefficient, and the challenges we face as a sector are too big for these siloed approaches to remain in place.

Instead, a way of working that shares risk and reward at every stage is needed – from assessment and subsea project design to SPS-SURF solutions. These kinds of partnerships build more integrated, synergistic teams with common goals. Commercial collaboration has begun to extend beyond technology development to mutually beneficial commercial agreements, with companies such as Baker Hughes launching new operating models, designed to positively address the challenges of recent years. Subsea Connect is just one example of the ways in which the supply chain is turning traditional operating models, and operator relationships, on their heads.

These partnerships widen the pool from which experience, talent and ideas can be drawn. And our experience already shows that it leads to more comprehensive solutions that reduce complexity, shorten time to market and help achieve the certainty that operators are looking for.

The ultimate objective of any field development is to maximise economic returns. That hasn’t changed in more than a century of operations. But the parameters are changing, the variables to managed increasing, and cost pressures mounting. Fortunately, the availability of solutions to these problems is also increasing. The opportunity is there to be grasped.

Simon Corrigan is Systems and Technology Leader of Subsea Systems at Baker HughesSimon Corrigan is Systems and Technology Leader of Subsea Systems at Baker Hughes.