Automating Crude Movement

Whether it's pumping Bakken crude through a pipeline, sending farm machinery down an assembly line or filling single-serving food containers, JDP Automation has shown how the oil and gas industry can use software to move product.
By Patrick C. Miller | September 15, 2014

Whether it’s pumping Bakken crude through a pipeline, sending farm machinery down an assembly line or filling single-serving food containers, JDP Automation‘s focus is on quality, safety and efficiency. 

“We make stuff move,” says Glenn Mitzel, JDPA systems engineer. “What makes us different is the fact that we have the software skills to get data on how well it’s moving. People call us because they know we’ll come up with good solutions.”

JDPA, based in Moorhead, Minnesota, was formed in 2010 by combining Midstates Engineering Corp. and Invie Consulting Inc., a merger that consolidated more than 30 years of industry knowledge under one roof. JDPA is a recognized systems integrator in the Rockwell Automation Partner Network Program.

In the Bakken, JDPA is proving its mettle in automated control systems by working in partnership with Enbridge, a major midstream company. The firm has provided Enbridge with controls for both its pipeline and transloading rail operations. It’s currently developing a control system for Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper Pipeline.

Josh Brown, product development engineer, says the pipeline pressure control system JDPA developed for Enbridge is a good example of what the company can do for the oil and gas industry.

“It’s probably the coolest system we’ve created so far,” he notes. “It’s a proactive leak detection system. A lot of pipeline companies put in systems that tell you there’s been a leak.”

In contrast, JDPA’s system is based on how the pipeline is mechanically engineered and designed to operate. It spots problems before they become bigger problems.

“We program to those standards so it will shut the system down before a failure occurs,” Brown explains. “When we see pressures or flows creeping outside anticipated ranges, we bring the system back down to a safe operating condition. We do that continually. It’s built into the pumping routines.”

It’s like the difference between firefighting and fire prevention.

“We’re working with Enbridge to do everything we can to mitigate the potential for leaks and spills,” Mitzel says. “Rather than saying, ‘Oops! It broke,’ you can see that it might be breaking and head off the problem by being smart and using the technology in your favor.”

The key is communicating in real time with the programmable logic controllers (PLC) JDPA programs to tell the system what to do and when to do it. Remote control of the PLCs not only enables adjustments on the fly, but also provides JDPA’s customers a wealth of information on where changes can be made to improve productivity and efficiency.

“If they really want to know why something is happening, we can give them the data they need,” says Jennifer Steiner, JDPA project manager. “Our in-house software team can provide them with those reports. We’re also able to create dashboards for them.”

It’s an approach that gives JDPA’s partners the ability to see what their systems are doing anywhere they have a wireless connection. It also enables JDPA to troubleshoot customers’ problems, no matter when they occur.

Ryan Bacon, project development engineer, remembers getting a call from an equipment manufacturer while on the road. He used his smartphone to access their system through his laptop and solve the problem within 10 minutes.

“We can get into all systems remotely,” he says. “There’s been a large push from companies in the oil fields for this type of access to multiple systems. You get the high-level overview of how the system’s working and can interact with it.”

As Mitzel notes, “Nine times out of ten when we get a service call, we solve it from the office. Very rarely do we hop in a car for a service call.”

JDPA started working in North Dakota’s energy industry in the coal mines where it developed controls to remotely monitor the draglines used to remove overburden above lignite seams. A former mining company electrical engineer who went to work for Enbridge recognized the need for the midstream to standardize its systems.

“He told them to call JDP Automation, and that’s how we got in the door,” Brown says.

JDP’s work with Enbridge has it looking to expand into other areas. For example, Mitzel says there’s more manufacturing being done in the region to support industry in the Bakken. Those businesses could benefit from controls technology that improve efficiency, productivity and safety.

In addition, Mitzel believes JDP’s automated controls can benefit upstream producers.

“We’re trying to get closer to the wellhead. We’re exploring relationships with other partners to do the controls for oil, oil-water separation and the natural gas liquids—the hot topic these days,” he says.

JDPA’s automated remote-control systems also can help producers deal with North Dakota’s harsh climate, too.

“There are companies that have guys who do nothing every day but hop in a truck with a clipboard, drive to wellheads and sites to write down what’s on meters—all day, every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s 110 above or 40 below,” he says. “When they realize what we can do for them, they get very interested.”