Technological Solutions to Accelerate InnovationWed, 01/22/2014 - 12:40
For the past 30 years, National Instruments (NI) has sold technological solutions directly to scientists and engineers in a variety of industries. The company’s mission is to provide these professionals with tools to accelerate innovation, enhance productivity, and address industrial or corporate challenges. Understanding these challenges is part and parcel of NI’s work. It tasks its customers to act as partners and consultants when developing new products, maintaining close communication between clients and staff. “This proximity also allows the technicians who use our tools can customize them for their specific industry needs,” says Owen Golden, Vice President of Global Energy of National Instruments. He knows that given the number of fields NI caters to, his customers are to be used as experts and their feedback on NI products has allowed the company to provide tailor-made solutions for a number of sectors. In the oil and gas industry, NI has been successful in the upstream segment with mudgas separators, cement analyzers, and workover rig automation tools. In the midstream area, its distributed SCADA systems have proven popular, while its oil leakage detection methods and subsea remote operating vehicle control systems are used for downstream operations.
Aside from these tailored applications, NI generally adopts a platform-based strategy, integrating both software and hardware to ease system complexity and significantly speed up application design, development, and deployment. The firm understands the pace at which new technologies are developed and brought to market. “By offering rapidly advancing commercial, offthe-shelf technology, scientists and engineers are able to accelerate productivity and innovation when developing sophisticated control and monitoring systems,” says Golden. “The ability to customize through software applications has been a fundamental aspect of our strategy, making the solution the company gives each customer unique,” says John Graff, Vice President of the Americas of National Instruments. However, the release of better technology can also leave clients in need of a new control instrument, while also needing to interphase it with older, more specialized equipment from another supplier that is hard to replace. Instead of shirking away from retroactive compatibility, Golden says NI’s software is tailored to allow for the bridging of devices, regardless of age or manufacturer.
“A unique feature of the platform-based approach is that NI is not limited to targeting only one specific application or industry,” says Golden. “It is exciting to see how customers are using NI tools in projects ranging from research to advanced applications. If we can make our customers aware of the possibilities of our products and platform, their creativity could be unleashed,” says Graff. “Technicians are now tasked with carrying out a wide array of measurements as well as automation and control applications in the Mexican oil and gas sector. The inherent complexity and variety of these operations leads to a need for software flexibility. As hardware devices are becoming more and more advanced, it is critical for software to take advantage of available computing power, whether these are processes in the computer, embedded processors, or Field Programmable Gate Array technology.”
When assessing the advantages of using NI products in the oil and gas sector, Golden says that it is important to consider the specifics of other solutions on the market. He claims that internally designed systems, for example, usually do not go through the extensive testing NI hardware does. “Because our products are used in many different applications, they must be able to endure a variety of extreme environmental conditions. As a result, NI-based systems are more rugged and reliable,” says Golden. “For example, horizontal drilling requires meticulous control to maintain stable weight distribution. By using NI’s platform, customers in the oil sector have been able to develop and implement a model-free adaptive control algorithm to optimize the horizontal drilling process. Speed is another advantage: while programmable logic controllers have rates usually limited to one millisecond loops, NI systems can perform in microseconds.”
Automation is another crucial area to improve efficiency rates in the oil and gas industry, and automation processes range from well development to hydraulic fracturing and drilling. The equipment used for such operations is often prohibitively expensive, motivating players to invest in improving control, monitoring, and automation systems. “For example, acoustic measurements can be done on devices capable of gauging their own efficacy, letting operators know when maintenance works are needed. A company can also carry out advance calculations to improve controls when putting a drill pipe or cement in a well, thereby reducing errors,” says Graff. However, the continued use of antiquated tools and methods poses a considerable challenge, with NI believing a massive education program is the only way to make such operations more efficient and productive. Part of this education process entails luring customers away from entrenched habits. To achieve this, NI counts on its direct relationship with clients. “NI serves a wide range of industries. We are not experts in any particular industrial application but we use our Alliance Partner Network to connect with customers with the needed expertise.” The Alliance Partner Network is a program that includes more than 700 independent, third-party companies worldwide with strong engineering teams and high-quality products based on graphical system design. “Members of the network have the necessary skills to solve some of the toughest engineering challenges, making them valuable allies,” says Golden. The Alliance Partner Network also provides a way for technological updates made in one part of the world to rapidly spread globally. “I recently had the chance to meet with the NI team and customers in Mexico and I noticed there is a lot of excitement about the innovations coming out of this country, which will ultimately have a global impact,” says Graff.
As evidenced, the NI business model relies heavily on preaching the benefits of industrial science. In oil and gas, this involves preaching to the choir since companies in this sector are usually happy to harness the latest technology to gain efficiency and cut down on costs. But Graff remains passionate about instructing future professionals, saying that these will be in charge of solving the challenges of tomorrow’s industry. “NI’s investment in the future stretches to Mexican universities, where we equip laboratories with new gauging devices and other instruments. The goal is to inspire the future generations to explore technological options, and NI educational programs give students an important advantage as the instruments they practice with are the same tools that are being used for industrial purposes.” Another educational and technological platform organized by NI is the NIDays forum. This event brings together researchers, scientists, engineers, and students to learn about the latest technology. By being acquainted with the latest trends, attendees can be better prepared to solve specific problems in their corresponding industries. In the case of NIDays Mexico, the goal is to translate global strategies specifically for the local market. “NIDays is a way for our company to continuously bring together engineers and scientists in Mexico to offer training and education, but also to provide an atmosphere where they can connect with others working on similar problems, in the oil and gas industry and beyond,” tells Graff.