Programming the Bakken

Software and automated programmable logic controllers are changing the way a well pad is run, monitored and maintained. Companies capable of providing either are in demand.
By Luke Geiver | January 25, 2014

Programmable logic controllers (PLC) are changing the way a well pad is run, monitored and maintained. Typically housed in a industrial control panel located on a well pad and operated by a touchscreen interface system similar to a tablet, the PLC can route oil into a storage tank, run a pump jack or warn a work crew about the presence of dangerous gas built up on a site. Once connected to a wireless or wired network, the PLC can send a message to an accountant at a desk with information detailing oil tank levels at multiple locations. The PLC is made to automate virtually any process. “Automation can do as little or as much as you want it to do,” says Craig Pistulka, president of Design Solutions and Integration, a programming, UL508A panel shop and electrical company with offices in Stanley and Grand Forks, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D. “The reason why PLCs and automation is advancing so fast in the oil industry,” he says, “is because the technology and the applications for it are advancing just as fast.”

Over the past five years, several automation companies have entered and grown in the Bakken shale play. DSI started in the Bakken roughly seven years ago after servicing the water, wastewater, grain and ethanol industries with PLCs and automated systems. DSI isn’t the only company that has thrived through programmable automation.

In June of 2012, Flow Data Inc., which installs and supplies instrument and electrical needs on the well pad, opened a 6,000 square-foot facility in Dickinson, N.D. The company also has field offices and employee housing in Watford City, N.D., and Crosby, N.D. The same month Flow Data expanded its N.D. operations, the company did the same in Pennsylvania in the Appalachian Basin.

In 2008, Industrial Automation, a division of widely recognized Williston, N.D.-based Triangle Electric, opened an automation and programming service. Industrial Automation can install, build and design PLC and automation systems. In 2012, Tarpon Energy Services LLC acquired Schmidt Electric Inc. of Killdeer, N.D., in a move that Tarpon explained would give the company the ability to offer electrical instrumentation in North Dakota and the prolific Bakken play.

No one understands the demand for well site automation systems better than DSI. In 2001, he was working out of his bedroom on programming and panel designs. One year later, he hired his first employee, Brian Evans, who is still with DSI today. Today, he oversees a panel production shop in South Dakota and more than 30 programmers dedicated to the oil and gas industry.

Establishing an Elite Team
The breakout year for DSI came in 2010. Pistulka was able to land jobs with several major operators in the Bakken, and several other projects. The company is currently installing a 300-plus radio site system for a pipeline.  Multiple DSI programmers are working on projects that consist of automating well pads to pipelines and transloading facilities for a range of operators and infrastructure firms.

Finding work was not difficult for DSI, Pistulka says. Assembling the right group of programmers was, however. To get 30 programmers capable of working in the style DSI has created, Pistulka had to go through more than 50 programmers and countless resumes and interviews. “We are still looking for more,” he says. The current group is made up of programmers from throughout the U.S., including Texas, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Utah, Arizona, Ohio, South Dakota and North Dakota.

“There is a lot that goes on beyond the scenes that people don’t realize anymore,” he says, “it is not just about punching holes into the ground. The oil companies are very demanding—and rightfully so—they are investing billions of dollars. They expect A-plus service and technology.”

To ensure DSI is meeting the needs of the oil industry, a programmer undergoes a multilevel training program that could take up to one year to complete. “We want someone that not only knows how to program a PLC but also knows the instrumentation that they are monitoring and all of the equipment that they are controlling,” he says, adding that, “We have found some guys that are really good at programming but are kind of shy at knowing the instrumentation. We train them so that they know what they are hooking up to and how it should be run.”

If DSI is able to find a senior level programmer with oil or gas experience—which isn’t often—the training period can end after 8 weeks. Since DSI first started serving the Bakken, he has noticed an increased emphasis on safety options in many of the program requests and the automated processes that the programs run. Dawn Pistulka, operations coordinator for DSI and wife of Craig, says that DSI’s programs are vastly more complex than they were five years ago, “because in addition to new safety options, we are trying to make every program and system better than the last.”

DSI Programmer Duties
Not all programming and automation service providers operate the same, but DSI's team has found a way to utilize existing programs built in the past to streamline the well site automation process. When an customer requests service, a programmer will be assigned to a well site. The programmer will receive all applicable engineering and electrical design drawings.

Using a base model program from a previous site, or, an entirely new program design, the programmer will build a program to run any process the operator requests, however the programs that are created are proprietary to each individual customer. After each program has been tested to 95 percent in-house, the programmer will meet the operators commissioning team on the well site to install, finish testing and start the automation process.

After the system is tested, including all safety sensors, the well can be put on flowback or production. After the well site is brought onto production, the programmer will stay at the site and monitor everything to make sure the software and the site is working correctly. Although the well sites are starting to be more standardized, Pistulka says, many are still one-off sites that could feature a varying amount of equipment.
Since opening the PLC panel shop in Sioux Falls, and the addition of an electrical installation team in June, DSI can now supply every service or product a client looking for automation would need. The use of automation is allowing oil companies to manage multiple wells much more efficiently, and according to Pistulka, it pays for itself pretty fast. Automation can cut down on the in-person monitoring that is needed at remote well sites, and, it can help operators stop a problem before it starts. “Say for example you aren’t monitoring your wells and one shuts down. The only way you know it shut down is if someone drives out there. What happens if that operator only checks that well every two or three days?” he says. “You can see the amount of money they lose in two to three days.”

Companies that can provide a wide-range of services, such as DSI, will have an advantage, Pistulka says. When an issue arises, it is easier to call one provider rather than six. Automated pump jacks, LACT units or other well site equipment packages aren’t the only thing DSI has programmed PLCs for. The company recently started offering video monitoring of well sites, another option that helps to reduce the amount of in-person monitoring needed at a site. He is proud of the role automation is playing in the Bakken, and he is thankful for the oil industry’s role in turning his bedroom-based company into an automation giant that is still growing. “We need a bigger staff, we need more programmers, more electricians that want to further their education. We need those that are willing to run a computer and download programs,” he says. “Any place that there is drilling, there is work.”


Award-Winning Tracking Technology

Global consulting firm Frost & Sullivan recognizes the role of software in the Bakken. In 2013, Fargo-based Pedigree Technologies was awarded the North American Customer Value Enhancement award for its oil and gas software. Pedigree, a company that has seen tremendous growth, has a created a machine-to-machine software package that can track equipment, including trucks, tanks, generators and other products used in the field.
“The idea is that you know what condition your equipment is in or where it is. You can coordinate a very streamlined operation,” says Alex Warner, Pedigree’s CEO. “If you are a rental operation and you identify that your skid steer has a diagnostic code error, you could dispatch and find out where a maintenance technician is in the field in relation to that equipment piece,” Warner says, “and then be able to show up with the right part at the right time.”

Pedigree’s technology can be used with tablets and smartphones. The system allows any user to see multiple data sets taken from a well site or a truck. In certain cases, a truck driving team can assess the best time to visit a well site for oil pickup based on information from a Pedigree technology package installed on oil storage sites.

“There is a pressing need for a platform that can amass data from these assets, along with data from their back-end business systems, to further streamline operations and improve overall efficiency,” Frost & Sullivan said of the need for systems such as Pedigrees.


Author: Luke Geiver
Managing Editor, The Bakken magazine