Hook Up and Systems Integration – The Role of a Specialist

SMS Team / April 18, 2017

I am an expert.…not in an abundance of subject matters …. but in a specialist niche craft that is my metier. As a Project Engineer specialising in the hook-up and integration of specialist integrity monitoring systems, I’ve grown accustomed to the typicality of having to troubleshoot and tweak instrumentation data processing equipment to achieve successful integration with client control systems. I accomplish this by knowing the capabilities and limitations of the systems we deploy, to simplify problems. Despite having worked with a mass array of PLC, SCADA, SCP, DCS, PCS, MCS, ICSS… control systems in the field, the next job I endeavour always seems to offer up a newer variation, or an older prehistoric monster, which wants to “talk” in a different protocol, using unusual flow control, with an additional data address offset. Okay, enough of the jargon…the point I’m getting at is I’m a specialist at what I do…because I know how to do it.

You’re probably aware of the well-known fable ‘The Old Engineer and His Hammer’ which goes….

A giant engine in a factory failed. The factory owners had spoken to several internal ‘experts’ but none of them could show the owners how they could solve the problem.

Eventually the owners brought in an old man who had been fixing engines for many years. After inspecting the huge engine for a minute or two, the old man pulled a hammer out of his tool bag and gently tapped on the engine.

Immediately the engine sprung back into life.

A week later the owners of the business received an invoice from the old man for £10,000. Flabbergasted, they wrote to the old man asking him to send through an itemised bill. The man replied with a bill that said:

Tapping with a hammer: £2.00 
Knowing where to tap: £9,998.00

This parable, albeit abstract, touches on an interesting moral loosely based on the importance of qualitative over quantitative value in expertise… portrayed (incidentally) through an engineering story. It’s often the case, in my experience, that a client wants to see quantitative pricing for engineering man hours, overlooking the significance and long-term efficiency of engineering expertise. Moreover, companies will look to find a cheaper solution in an effort to drive down costs.

To give you a slightly rearranged, but real-life example scenario of The Old Engineer and His Hammer you’ll first need to accept that in this instance I (the engineer) am not old, just well trained. And the associated costs were of course visible prior to any contractual arrangements. Our client (who build, operate, and maintain oil and gas facilities) purchased a non-intrusive sand monitoring system facilitating an asset design requirement to monitor a subsea riser for potential downhole screen failure – a common deployment method for this type of acoustic instrumentation.

The system was to be designed as a 4-20mA transmitter and integrated such that an automated alarm function would alert operations in the event that solids were detected, enabling them to react accordingly. Now we’re all aware of changes to profitability margins affecting the industry of late, so it’s of no surprise that asset operators are actively looking for opportunities to reduce OPEX. One obvious way of doing this from a commissioning standpoint is by utilising resources at hand, rather than contracting in the specialists, just as the factory owners in the story had sought a solution from “internal experts” before looking out with the company. Core platform personnel with the skillset deemed suitable to carry out hook-up and integration of a sand monitoring system were called upon based on the assumption that this would avoid investing in SMS specialist commissioning services, thus saving on costs associated with external manpower. Needless to say, the system was installed, connected up, and powered on with utmost efficiency, however the results were not as anticipated. The instrument was installed on an area of pipework not conducive to sand noise detection; electronics were configured such that no signal/data was being transferred into the client Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system (as per design specification) …. the lights were on but no one (or no data) was home.

The client invested in this system with the intention of using the associated data, which forms part of the overall asset design specification. The data will also contribute to decision making and operational response strategies. Failure to commission the system removes this component from the overall functional design, taking away the valued reason for which it was specified and subsequently procured in the first place. 

The client was left with no choice but to call in the specialists which, due to the fact this was an unplanned reactive measure, involved additional operational costs. Asset construction punch list documentation had to be produced along with engineering reports to handover the system in its pre-commissioned state. 

After liaising with core crew and inspecting the system, the SMS commissioning engineer worked with the core asset engineer to reinstall the system. It’s important to note at this point that the installation anomalies encountered were minor, but complete showstoppers. This is why “knowing where to tap” is so valuable. The key to solving complex problems is to follow a robust, reliable and cohesive structured analytical thinking process …whilst looking in the right places.

The system was installed, integrated, alarm tested, and commissioned within a single shift. The client gave top marks in the supplier feedback forms. Should the company have got the experts to commission the sand monitoring system first of all, they would have saved a considerable amount of time, money and indeed a great deal of stress.

There can be no doubt the old man in the parable simplified complexity by formulating both the simplest conclusion (“this part of the machine is broken”) and the recommendation (“hit here”) that solved the client’s problem. Sometimes things are not as easy as they seem, sometimes it’s better to just contact a specialist.

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